Out Now: “Cloud Atlas”

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November 2, 2012 by abbyo

As a film critic, there are few things harder for me to do than to give an unbiased review of a movie based on a book I’ve read. If it’s a book I love, it’s even harder. If that book is David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” it’s like climbing Mount Everest using fishhooks and twine. Mitchell’s brilliant, beautiful novel is complicated in ways that even the most talented director would have trouble adapting. The movie version directed by Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski is a noble attempt that ultimately fails both as an adaptation and as a movie. But it fails in a way that’s worth watching.

Like the novel, the film of “Cloud Atlas” is made up of six stories that interrupt and connect to each other: A nineteenth-century American notary who’s being slowly poisoned by a shifty medic, a young Englishman serving as a secretary and collaborator for a famous composer, a reporter uncovering corporate scandal in 1970s San Francisco, an elderly publisher trying to escape a nursing home, a genetically engineered clone in far-future South Korea who becomes a political rebel, and a troubled goatherd in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. While the settings and language of each story vary, there are common threads that run through all of them. To accentuate these common threads, the same cast is used for each story in different roles, suggesting reincarnation. The protagonist of one story might be a supporting character in another, and vice versa.

See what I mean? Complicated. To make things nuttier, Tykwer and the Wachowskis tell all these stories at once. They cut from one to another as it suits the themes of the film which, in a way, makes the structure of “Cloud Atlas” more like a piece of music, and less like conventional cinema. It’s an idea that’s interesting in theory, but doesn’t always work so well in the execution. The movie spends so little time in each setting that the characters don’t get space to develop, which makes it difficult to care about any of them. And while some plots are excellent, others are just barely worth paying attention to.

That being said, from a visual standpoint “Cloud Atlas” is a gorgeously made movie. When the film stops long enough to catch its breath, there are plenty of sprawling, breathtaking shots to ogle. And the message of the movie—that the actions of one person can affect the life of another, even worlds or years apart—is inspiring. But the film feels like a beautiful unfurnished house. It’s pretty to look at, but there’s nobody living inside. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Wachowskis and Tykwer made “Cloud Atlas” simply to prove they could, rather than because they felt it was something worth sharing. As technical exercises go, it’s impressive, and worth seeing for the scale of the attempt alone. But in terms of storytelling, there’s a lot to be desired, especially when the film comes from such rich, fascinating source material.

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