Cloud Atlas: The Mostly Spoiler-Free Review

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 15.678% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

You cannot understand how good Cloud Atlas is until you understand all the fine qualities of my ass.  My ass is a fine-tuned, boredom-detecting machine.  Placed in the uncomfortable seat of a movie theater, my ass will creep at the slightest hint of movie padding, and it’s rare that my ass emerges from a film without proclaiming, loudly, that this movie was ten minutes too long.
Cloud Atlas is three hours long, and my ass barely quivered.
That is how good Cloud Atlas is. For me.  As I’ll explain shortly, there are some very good reasons why Cloud Atlas might not be for you.
Cloud Atlas is actually six stories woven together, and individually, each of the stories aren’t worth much… and they’re violently at odds with each other in terms of tone.  How does the comedic flailings of Jim Broadbent as a hapless publisher trying to avoid being beaten up by his thuggish clients interlace with the cold Asian future of clones, where Doona Bae is born into slavery at the futuristic equivalent of an Applebees, meant to be used and discarded?  How does Tom Hanks mutter-and-patois rendition of a post-apocalyptic future beset by Braveheart-painted horse-riding savages intertwine with Halle Berry’s 1970s nuclear power plant investigations?  Judged on their own merits, most of these tales don’t even have a definitive ending, let alone a satisfying one.
But that’s the trick; the Wachowski siblings move from plotline to plotline with the rapidity of a man spinning plates, sometimes, switching between three plots in the course of a minute.  And they layer on the emotional resonances, so that the storylines are not knotted together by coincidence of plot, but by mood; it’s not just one character falling into mortal danger, it’s three people at once.  Four people discover the meaning of friendship within two minutes, each emotional revelation pouring into the next.
Alone, each of these notes would be simple.  Yet in this, the Wachowskis create the cinematic equivalence of a chord, repeatedly and skillfully playing the same notes with variances so they harmonize, swell, take on greater meaning than any single instance of a tale.
The flicker-and-flash keeps the story moving, as you don’t have the time to ponder where it’s all going; just as you’re starting to see down the pathway of the amanuensis storyline, when it would become predictable, you’re wheeled off to the 1850s tale on a bobbing Transatlantic ship-journey, and are distracted all over again.  This is one tale where there is a narrative necessity of having multiple jump-cuts, and it works.
…or it doesn’t.  The problem with Cloud Atlas is that, like old-school Kirk Star Trek and Titanic, it’s so bold and big that you kind of need to buy into it.  Does anyone ever talk like they did in Titanic?  Well, no.  And stylistically, either you buy into it – in which case it’s magnificent – or it plummets straight into the Land Du Frommage.  The Wachowskis were trying to make A Statement by slurring racial lines, having white people as black people and men as women and asians as whites and yes, whites as asians – but that statement is, usually, “We needed a bigger makeup budget.”  Because the Negri- and Caucasizations are usually pretty decent, but the attempts to turn whites into asians makes people look like low-budget Klingons.  They don’t look asian, they look off-puttingly foreign, like some sort of warped branch of humanity, and oh God is that Doona Bae as a ginger don’t look directly at her she will twist your eyeballs like Twizzlers.
I didn’t find the yellowfacing to be racial, as I’d feared.  I did, however, find it to be a constant distraction.  Likewise, I was charmed by the garbled patois of Tom Hanks’ post-apocalyptic future, but I could easily see it being laughable – and frankly, Tom Hanks’ attempts to do non-American accents were hysterical.  (Let us not start on poor Hugh Grant attempting to do what I’m pretty sure is an American accent.)  While Cloud Atlas is unflaggingly beautiful to look at, there are a lot of substandard executions you just have to take as a part of it, and I suspect most moviegoers haven’t.
Plus, Cloud Atlas is being oversold.  Roger Ebert refers to it as though it’s some sort of deep and crazy mystery, man, fuckin’ Cloud Atlas, how does it work?  But no.  It’s six simple stories, weaved together, and the only mystery is whether Roger Ebert is getting too old to follow films any more.  Nor is Cloud Atlas really deep, man – yes, it has attempts at Buddhist overtones with reincarnation and such, but the main message is “friendship is good, oppression is bad.”  It’s a sweet, simple idea, wrapped in a very crunchy shell, but don’t mistake this for a movie that will blow your mind.  Fight Club raised a lot of philosophical questions and then infamously refused to answer them, making it as genuinely complex as a Hollywood film gets – Cloud Atlas raises few questions and then never wavers on where the moral center is, planting its finger and saying, “Here.  Here is goodness.”
But that’s part of the charm, for me.  Cloud Atlas isn’t trying to be cynical, not trying to hide a simple moral message with needless complexity that way, say, The Fountain tried to.   The Fountain was afraid of speaking simplicity because for them, “simple” meant “unworthy of consideration,” and so it gussied it up with a lot of pretention and obscurity.  There’s nothing obscure about Cloud Atlas.  It wears its heart proudly on six sleeves.  There’s not a lot to debate, just a story told well, and even if you hate it you’ll probably hate it in an interesting way.
My advice: go see it.

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