Ambitious and crazy, 'Cloud Atlas' soars

By Ed Robertson, atomictown.comOctober 28, 2012 

Cloud Atlas should have been a failure.

And a bad one. A movie strictly faithful to the source novel's structure would leave audiences angry. Even taking big liberties, it would probably be frustrating and confusing.

The wrinkle here is that Cloud Atlas is directed by the Wachowskis. Remember them? You're reading this on the Internet, so the answer is of course you do. You're probably typing a rant about The Matrix Revolutions in another tab right now. The thing about them, however, is they're very ambitious, and in the case of The Matrix, that ambition actually paid off in the form of one of the best movies ever. Cloud Atlas doesn't reach the same heights as their masterpiece, but it's much better than I ever expected.

In a story that stretches from the past to the future, six different characters face threats to the freedom of themselves and those around them. The story begins in 1849, when a young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) saves the life of a stowaway slave and winds up saving himself in the process.

Elsewhere, a young composer struggles to leave his mark, a journalist uncovers a nuclear conspiracy, and a post-apocalyptic tribesman leads a foreign scientist up a mountain. All face their own chance to help or do harm.

In case I actually pulled that summary off, let me make clear it was kind of pain. It isn't that easy to describe a movie about six different protagonists whose connections aren't always that clear. Instead, I probably should have gone to see the movie about the girl who's attacked by monsters and she has to fight the monsters or she'll die.

But I read Cloud Atlas last year and loved it. I haven't read Silent Hill: The Novel, and while I'm sure it's just as good, sometimes that's just how these things break. In a seamless transition, I'm now going to compare Cloud Atlas to Watchmen: beloved books that are in some ways unfilmable yet have been brought to the movies nonetheless by sci-fi/fantasy directors with gorgeous styles and spotty track records. That combo should be a disaster just short of the time Dr. Manhattan found Grad Student Brooklyn sleeping with Professor Bronx.

Again, though, Wachowskis. While they may be the most talented action stylists of their generation, they're also quite concerned with the kind of philosophical, literary stuff that probably got them beaten up as kids. Wow, pretending they were Neo as a real-life Nelson Muntz flushed their heads down the toilet would explain everything about them. Anyway. Say what you want about how deep the Wachowskis really are, but they are nothing if not sincere.

This makes them (along with codirector Tom Tykwer) the perfect fit for the project. With their involvement, it's a given that Cloud Atlas looks spectacular. More impressive is their ability to tell six different stories at once with minimal confusion. As in the book, the tones diverge wildly, from literary farce to dystopian sci-fi blockbuster, but it somehow hangs together, supported by strong editing and transitions and the fairly insane choice to keep recasting the same actors in different roles regardless of sex or race.

Like, Hugo Weaving plays a lot of bad guys, including a Nurse Ratched figure. Once you realize that's Hugo Weaving in a wig and fake bosoms, it's incredibly distracting. But it also makes you reach back to his roles in the other five stories, forming new connections across the whole movie. Which I'm sure is 85% of the point. (The other 15%: making Weaving wear falsies.)

Even with a Lord of the Rings-esque runtime, parts of Cloud Atlas feel rushed, stripped down to their skivvies, if not their bones. In particular, Halle Berry's nuclear conspiracy story gets pretty starved.

But if that story doesn't do much on its own, it still enriches the others it's linked to. Unlike Watchmen, which was a perfect adaptation of the visuals but a bad copy of its emotions, Cloud Atlas the movie catches a big part of its book's feelings.

I think they pulled it off. I can see others thinking different. I can see future-me thinking present-me is full of crap and that this movie is a sprawling, disjointed failure. Right now, though, I think it's pretty great, a feat of spectacle, storytelling, and editing on par with Inception. It doesn't fulfill every inch of its ambition, but it comes damn close.

Rated R for graphic violence, nudity, sex, language, mature themes. It is playing at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.

Grade: A-

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook,Kobo and elsewhere.

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