Yesterday I saw Cloud Atlas, a movie you will probably love or dislike. Most people I’ve talked to haven’t liked it. It made quite an impression on my wife and myself but in at least one respect was disappointing insofar as what I gleaned from the movie wasn’t what I had hoped.
First the easy part: I thought repeatedly while watching it, “the scale of this, the design, the tropes…” as in, “wow, amazing, unexpected.” I haven’t read the book (it’s been on my list since the year it was published; it has been a tough couple of years, what can I say?), but the movie was highly literary. I found myself laughing out loud when the theater was silent, maybe because people were snoozing. Often I was filled with delight as I witnessed the cultural artifacts/relics/interpretations of ideas within each period of life. Probably 7-8 people walked out after the first :30-hour. Some of the jokes weren’t literary but you had to know cultural events to get them. And that’s probably also true of the periods the events were taking place in; you had to know the period issues and what was at stake (I believe) to get the connections, whether the punch line was funny or not.
This includes contextualizing the future cultural events. Where could we be headed as a human race? You had to kind of understand those possibilities before you could understand how the movie was commenting on them. I’m not sure the viewing audience I was with understood those future possibilities, much less the comments on them. Beyond the cursory surface features—slavery, clones, Brave New World…ok…I found myself wondering if David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, is a vegetarian. And the final impact of cannibalism. What is it we are eating when we eat meat? What is our relationship to this kind of “food?” What will be the impact on our world? Even if the period just before the fall wasn’t meant to be about, at least in part, meat, it was certainly about hierarchies of power and how we relate to the world socially within these hierarchies. We could have any thematic conversation with that kind of codification, it’s true, but the imagery was all slaughterhouse. Literally or figuratively, the movie was talking at least in part about meat and our culture’s relationship with meat.
These kinds of questions/issues only come up when looking at how the characters and their circumstances change over time. I’m not sure the audience I was with was up to that kind of challenge. I certainly didn’t feel like putting energy into what the movie looked like it was going to demand during the first :15-:20 minutes. Soon after that opening reluctance, however, the movie enthralled me and compelled me forward. Well done editor and director.
And then when the movie began to wind down I started to have inklings of disappointment. Were we going to be cheated of an ending, or was the whole point only an enactment of life? We can look to the themes in the movie for some answers, but I’m not sure the themes are the ending point. I didn’t come away with the sense that all the repetition (of, notably, failure) ever had an end. It’s something we always deal with and live with.
Arguably, Cloud Atlas ends the repetition with the destruction of the planet Earth, and some human inhabitants moving on to another planet. We don’t know if repetition continues on the new planet, but given the weight of the movie’s thematic thrust and plotting, there’s nothing to suggest the repetition ceases. Life, with its inherent repetitions, certainly continues. We’re left with an old man who has told his (“life?”) story to children in a feel-good sort of way. Another option is love; the movie is billed as a love story. In my opinion the love the “main characters” in Cloud Atlas achieve feels more like an afterthought than a driving force. I can see how someone might make a case otherwise, but I would not be that person.
My take away is that the movie is simply an enactment of life, with the suggestion of as much complexity and interconnectivity that is ever-present in life. If there’s a sense of integrative purpose—the idea that we as a human race are evolving towards something (love? A fairly docile/basic version of love given what was endured to earn it)—I didn’t really get what the something was or even that there was a purpose. Is the purpose to break the boundaries of freedom—to transcend our cultural limitations? For what…a bunch of semiotic, hackneyed ideals that even the movie doesn’t appear to take seriously? The line, “what is an ocean but a collection of drops” comes out so predictably even Tom Hanks seems smugly self-conscious about saying it. So then how should this freedom we seek be taken? With predictable derision? The movie parodied itself on major thematic issues at least twice.
At the same time, this is a Wachowski movie. Matrix was genius; Matrix III did not seem to be aware of its script weaknesses. Having said that, I kind of enjoyed the writing in Speed Racer, but I didn't take a liking to it until the 2nd time through when what was "boring" came off as more intentional, and so then as a kind of parody of whatever was at issue. I couldn't say this of Matrix III, but I might say it of Cloud Atlas. Looking around on the net, some people are looking at the philosphical gestures in the movie as platitudinal, while some appear to be taking them as parodies. The Wachowskis seem to want to leave how to take this matter to the viewer.
This issue trickled into the makeup of the actors. At times, it was outstanding. At other times, it appeared amateurish. Was this intentional? Did bad makeup represent a shift in character we as the audience were supposed to take note of? The acting, overall was outstanding.
My wife did say Cloud Atlas was a negative movie, and I had that sense several times. I flinched and felt emotionally pushed over the line of what I wanted to deal with in a mainstream movie frequently. And at times, being pushed over the line seemed to be all the movie wanted to give.
I admire the complexity and effort that went into this major achievement of a movie. It might be that I missed something, but beyond an existential portrayal of human life, Cloud Atlas doesn’t really go beyond its fictional depictions to tell us directly what life is about. At the same time, Cloud Atlas is very much worth seeing and I daresay a landmark movie in a number of very different and important ways. I think I’ve said too much and don’t want to give too much more of the movie away. Just go see it.