Where This Meets That
Watching Cloud Atlas this weekend, I found myself wondering how the heck I could write a review about it. I wasn’t even sure what I was watching or whether or not I was enjoying it. At the same time, it seemed worth watching, worth paying attention to.
The problem with ambitious films is that they so often get ruined by their pretentiousness. They seem self-serving and fail to connect with me on any real human level. I loathe the films of art house darling Darren Aronofsky for just this reason. David Lynch is another name that comes to mind. The casual viewer might dismiss such art films because they are beyond easy understanding, but if you’ve followed my reviews, you know that’s not me; I simply think the work of the above artists is, by and large, disingenuous rubbish. Weird for weirdness’ sake.
I think the most effective art in film connects on a human level. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in this case, I am the beholder, so take it for what it’s worth.
Now, where was I . . . ah, yes, Cloud Atlas!
Six stories of interlocking themes that span some five centuries, each a tale of bucking the “natural order of things”. With a mantra that declares, “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!”, it spotlights societal square pegs that refuse to go round. Each is revolutionary in their own right, each coming to understand that freedom is not so much a choice as a necessity but that it is also far from foregone. In other words, “freedom isn’t free”.
As we left the theater, I told my wife that I felt like I needed to see it again but wasn’t sure if I wanted to. Not because I didn’t like it, because I did (I think). I’m just not sure another viewing would yield any better understanding. Like a good poem, Cloud Atlas is best assessed by how it leaves the viewer feeling rather than by any concrete understanding. The ripples rather than the stone.
And, for me, Cloud Atlas ripples.
Slavery, greed, love, betrayal . . . the film overflows with universal human memes, but by relentlessly juxtaposing vignettes that jump from 19th century south Pacific slave trade to that of 24th century Seoul and everywhere in between, it defies linear understanding. As a result, the editing is the film’s largest obstacle to viewer accessibility, but for this viewer, it works. David Mitchell, the author of the 2004 novel on which the film is based, called the film a “pointillist mosaic”, and that’s a pretty great description.
Cloud Atlas has other unique elements that work less well. Each cast member portrays a diverse array of characters, which makes for a fun “guessing game” but can distract from the storytelling. Also, the post-apocalyptic storyline features a pidgin language spoken between the primitives and the “Prescients” that is a little difficult to understand and could have benefited from subtitles.
Despite these shortcomings, Cloud Atlas is an effective, ambitious film that celebrates the spectrum of human emotions through its unique storylines. Ironically, I found the story of fabricant (clone) Sonmi-451 the most richly human, easily worthy of its own screenplay. The story, the stakes, and the special effects are all astounding. If for no other reason, I’ll eventually watch Cloud Atlas again for that story alone.
Cloud Atlas is a film of impressive vision and scope, but it’s not for everyone. Its ambition and sincerity carry it above its shortcomings, and if you’re in the mood to be “thought provoked” this film is worthy of your short list.