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Arguably, two of the most influential films of the end of the 20th century were German director Tom Tykwer’s hyper-kinetic Run Lola Run, and the science-fiction game-changer The Matrix by Americans Andy and Larry - now Lana - Wachowski.  Both films challenged notions of reality and the ideas of self-determination versus fate by way of groundbreaking special effects, cinematography, editing and truly original scripts.  These three filmmakers have combined their efforts for another groundbreaking venture, Cloud Atlas, based on David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel.

From the South Seas in the mid-1800’s, to a post-apocalyptic, primitive land of the future, Cloud Atlas makes stops in many eras, through the eyes of many characters.  Their connecting thread is a piece of symphonic music written midway through these worlds, inspired by one person’s travels and inspiring many others.  All our characters are joined by the search for love and the freedom to live their hearts’ desires.  In our earliest chapter, the impetus for our tale, Adam Ewing, is a 19th century lawyer shipwrecked on a South Seas island, where be befriends both a noted doctor and a runaway slave, who protects the young lawyer when the doctor’s greed imperils Ewing’s life.  It’s Ewing’s memoirs from this time that give wing to an ambitious young musician’s great work, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, generations later.  Robert Frobisher uses his experience working as an amanuensis for a famous composer to create his opus until the elderly maestro proposes to steal the piece from the younger, unestablished man.  Frobisher’s lover from their 1930’s youth, Rufus Sixsmith, is at the heart of a tale some forty years later, when, as a nuclear physicist, he calls in journalist Luisa Rey to expose wrongdoings at his company, subjecting them both to a deadly cat and mouse game with the powers that be.  In the early part of the 21st century, publisher Timothy Cavendish has made a very bad deal with a very bad man: His author has leapt to notoriety after forcing a disapproving critic to take a flying leap out a window.  The tough demands royalties from the shifty Cavendish, who pleads with his even-shiftier brother for help.  Shifty Cavendish two then uses the opportunity to imprison his ne’er-do-well sibling in a high-security old folks’ home, wherein the trapped old man uses the time to reflect on his life and its regrets while planning his escape.  Not remotely dreaming of freedom is the lovely Sonmi, a clone in Korea’s future capital of Neo-Seoul, where replicating life is so commonplace that the average fast food joint has any number of attractive, utterly subservient manufactured people.  It isn’t until one of her sister clones begins to have desires of her own and dreams of freedom and respect that Sonmi sees that she is a slave.  With the help of a human rebel, she becomes the figurehead for the public to understand the injustices both the clones and the underprivileged are subjected to in this world of haves and have-nots.  In a time further away, the wilderness of Hawaii still stands, mysterious and green for a group of primitives that live in world of killed or be killed, eat or be eaten.  The descent of a higher being throws the simple life of Zachry and his tribe into more peril as the cosmos traveler employs the fearful man to find an ancient observatory high atop a dangerous mountain that will show her the way to save her people.

For all its elliptical storytelling and time-tripping construct, Cloud Atlas is an empty affair.  Affected and predictable once the novelty wears off, which is practically immediately, at its most visceral, there’s not one real “wow” moment in Cloud Atlas, which is the last thing one would expect from its visually-minded filmmakers.  Some of the film’s scenery looks cribbed from other movies, such as Neo Seoul’s close resemblance to Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles and Luisa’s San Francisco car chase draws an obvious parallel to the father of all San Francisco car chases, Bullitt.  In a jarring bit of self-homage, the Korean rebel meant to save Sonmi breaks out some familiar Matrixian martial-arts moves.  The only surprises come at the end credits, when it’s revealed how very many different characters the actors have actually played; some as different sexes, some appearing merely as images in an old photo.  When the most memorable scene of your film is the cast listing, something’s gone wrong.  Other than that, there’s not one thing to remember after Cloud Atlas’ punishing 163-minute running time is over.  I take that back, the patently awful Asian prosthetics glued onto the non-Asian cast is memorable for all the wrong reasons.  I think I shall have nightmares about it and the discomfort of seeing Caucasians in waxy yellowface, no matter how grandiose the concept, for some time.  Somehow, understanding the idea that the characters are souls that travel through time, repeating their situations over and over and are therefore played by the same actors, didn’t quite reason it away.  One of the things that makes Cloud Atlas unique is also one of its main problems in that with all these overlapping stories; the audience gets only smatterings of the hearts of the characters.  Just when we get to know and identify with one of them, it’s off to the past, present, future, or wherever the filmmakers drag us, which is unfortunate because a few of them really do stand out; like the story of callow, young Frobisher, the expressive, haunting eyes of the clone Sonmi, and her brave sibling in slavery from the past, Autua of the South Seas.  I wouldn’t have asked this movie to be any longer to accommodate more character development, though the Carry-On-esque slapstick adventures of Cavendish and the Creole-Bonic Nell-speak of the future primitives could easily have been chopped down.  The setup precludes us from caring about any of them and so much of the emotion we’re clearly meant to feel by the story’s end is not there.  This is naught to do with its excellent cast, including a brilliant Ben Whishaw as the caddish Frobisher, Hugo Weaving, back in drag as a Nurse Rached to Jim Broadbent’s bumbling Cavendish, Jim Sturgess under those cumbersome rubber prosthetics as the Neo Seoul version of Neo, and the excellent Korean star, Bae Doo-na making her American film debut.  Cloud Atlas is a model of form over function that never quite comes together.

Outside of its novel structure and audacious multifunctional casting gimmick, which is how it feels by film’s end, there isn’t much to Cloud Atlas but its threadbare, many-times-told tale of love and liberty, free will versus fate.  A moral that has already been spun by at least two of its directors at least three times before with the Wachowski’s Matrix series. While the pure ambition of telling a story in such bravura, non-linear fashion is surely to be applauded, I’d have appreciated Cloud Atlas more if it worked, or if I had merely even grown to care.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

October 26th, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Warner Brothers)

 

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