Though any look at the score distribution of my films will inform readers that my taste in movies leans towards the high-brow and artsy, I am not ashamed to admit that I am as capable of enjoying low-brow, broad cinema as anyone else. I only dismiss low-brow cinema out of hand when it’s intentionally as idiotic and crass as possible (i.e. late period Adam Sandler). Otherwise, if a film is enjoyable but meant for the masses, who cares? Funny is funny, and while no one would confuse Sex Drive with Woody Allen, I still really enjoy that movie despite it’s stupidity. However, the most unforgivable cinematic sin that I can think of is a movie that thinks it’s incredibly intelligent and profound but turns out to be as shallow as a dinner conversation at the Kardashian household.
I’ve tried to rewatch the original Matrix film years ago (and actually sat through twenty minutes of the first sequel before I started laughing uncontrollably and gave up), and, boy, is that film perhaps the shining example of a movie that will make stupid people think they’re smart. With it’s faux-philosophy and psuedo-scientific bent, The Matrix talked a big game but fell apart if you spent even half a second thinking about any of the absurd things Morpheus was saying. The Wachowski brothers (well technically, one of them’s a woman now) have managed to tread those same laughably asinine waters again with their bloated sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas. It is not an understatement to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the most astoundingly deluded and self-important films I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog.
Cloud Atlas‘s narrative conceit probably worked much better in David Mitchell’s original novel but mostly leaves everything feeling rushed and half-cocked in the movie (despite the fact that it ran an agonizing three hours). The film is a series of six interconnected and metatextually nested tales featuring many of the same actors in a large number of roles in the different stories (including Big‘s Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent). Touching on themes of slavery, free will, and the eternal consequences of our mortal actions, Cloud Atlas weaves a centuries spanning tale that leaves more than a little to be desired.
Certain episodes of the film work better than others, and perhaps not surprisingly at all, it is the portions of the film most dedicated to character and actual human storytelling that shine through more than the action/sci-fi/noir-ish pretentions the film wishes to hold. There are six stories in all in the film but only two made any impression with me. One is the tragic tale of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a talented Victorian-era English musician whose homosexuality puts him on the run. He moves in with the aged but brilliant composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) as Ayrs’s assistant, but when Frobisher’s talents prove a threat to Ayrs’s legacy, Frobisher sees the elderly man’s true nature.
The only other story worth it’s salt in the film is that of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again), an older literary agent who is tricked into locking himself away in a sadistic nursing home by his brother as pay back for sleeping with his brother’s wife years ago. It’s a kafka-esque dark comedy, and it was probably the only moment where the film didn’t have a cockamamie and unearned high opinion of itself. It let it’s hair down so to speak. But the other tales, ranging from typical sci-fi cloning blues, a postapocalyptic wasteland, a troubled 19th century sea voyage, and a silly detective story were all totally forgettable and generic.
And that consistent air of “generic” and “been there, done that” becomes the film’s biggest problem. A sense of deja vu in plot is not a cardinal sin of movie-making. The year is 2013 and the plot well isn’t as deep and untapped as it used to be. But, with the exception of the bisexual and doomed Robert Frobisher and the hell-raising Timothy Cavendish, not a single one of the characters in the film had any life or purpose other than to be used as plot devices. They were uniformly dull and uninteresting and when all of the stories in the film are intentionally cliche-ridden spins on classic genres, you need something sharp and fresh to hold audience’s attention. And at virtually no point did Cloud Atlas‘s writing accomplish that goal.
I must give the Wachowski’s credit (as well as the movie’s third director, Tom Tykwer) for milking some visual inspiration out of their otherwise tepid tales. the sci-fi cloning nonsense is set in a dystopian future where rising sea levels have virtually annihilated the surfaces of many major cities and crippling poverty permeates Neo Seoul unless you’re the very elite. And when the Wachowski’s want to display their flare for science fiction splendor (which was perhaps the only redeeming quality of the Matrix sequels), they are nearly peerless, and Cloud Atlas is no exception.
That’s probably the last nice thing I can say about the film other than the performances of Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent. For a man who was old when he won an Oscar for Iris in 2001, Jim Broadbent brought a bon vivant feeling to the film that was missing throughout. He seemed like he was having fun and actually wanted to be there. It probably has something to do with the fact that he was acting in front of actual actors on actual sets and not in a never-ending sea of green screens (whose presence was painfully obvious most of the film). And Ben Whishaw (who I’m not entirely familiar with) marked himself as a potential talent with his sensitive turn as Frobisher.
But even more than the problems I’ve laid out so far, Cloud Atlas‘s troubles can be rooted down to one major and defining issue. It believes that it as insightful, intelligent, and profound as The Tree of Life, but it is in fact as obvious and unnecessary as they come. When the deepest notions that your film can come up with is “Slavery is bad” or “Humanity is inter-connected” or “Our actions have consequences,” it becomes very easy to laugh away any philosophical ambitions you pretend to have. And, that is as deep as the film gets. Kenneth Lonergan it is not.
What astounds me the most about Cloud Atlas though is how people I respect and appreciate intellectually seem to adore and idolize this film. Either they watched a different, better movie than I did or they allowed themselves to be suckered in by the surface beauty of the movie and it’s simplistic themes. I can’t in good heart recommend this film to everyone. I feel compelled to read the novel now to see if I find it to be as much of a trainwreck as the movie was, but somehow I feel that isn’t even possible. Unless you’re looking for a chance to laugh at really awful “yellowface” make-up, give Cloud Atlas a pass.
Final Score: C-