Ambition, Performance and Playing – The Multi-Authored World Of Cloud Atlas

This is a reprint of a review originally posted last November, the intention being to tie-in to the UK theatrical release of Cloud Atlas.

It’s been difficult to move around the commercial blockbuster landscape of 2012 without bumping in to adjectives like “ambitious” or “bold”, or some other synonym of such. In Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises Hollywood presented two of the most daring mainstream features of the age, the former marking a new age in the design of the tentpole movie, a picture half a decade in the build-up and one on which the fates of not one, but four separate franchise rested, while the latter saw what some have declared to be the last of the old fashioned Hollywood blockbusters, the sense of spectacle afforded recalling the days of the golden age prestige picture, with it’s in-camera effects and the celluloid running through said camera proving an ultra-contemporary reminder of a methodology rendered obsolete by the digital film landscape. It’s suitably appropriate then, that in a year in mainstream which films of grande ambition have filled multiplex screens up and down the land, that perhaps the most off-kilter and wildly daring film of this ilk caps the calendar.

The idiosyncrasies of Cloud Atlas greet from the off, with the film declared to be the most curious of collaborations. Where one might expect to find a lone filmmaker there are instead three, with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer joined by Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, the haute-visualists behind The Matrix and Speed Racer. A creative hive mind somehow manages to ensure that the work never falls in to the trappings one might associate with the traditional multi-directorial effort, thanks largely to the employment of an inventive structual approach. The film takes severe liberties with the form of the source material, the novel of the same title from British author David Mitchell. While the book is presented in a nest-style, portmanteau fashion, the film instead sees the multiple narratives cut together in the way that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction re-popularised back in the  mid-1990’s, with the temporal chain fractured against all rules of formalism. While this approach to narrative does mean that a couple of the strands feel a tad short changed (the “earliest” sequence for example, entitled “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” (1849) winds up feeling somewhat lacking, and there does feel to be an element of “shoehorning in” with some of the sections, for the sake of thematic transparency), ultimately the the tonal shifts between sections are a success, with the theoretically suspect placing of a Jim Broadbent led retiree comedy sitting between future-noir and 1970’s conspiracy thriller working much more effectively in action than perhaps on paper.

A by-product of setting the wonderful ambitions of Cloud Atlas in motion is a fantastic sense of befuddlement that accompanies the opening act of the film. So broad is the undertaking that it takes some time for the whole thing to settle in to something that one would associate with the cinematically traditional. This virtuoso turn of events becomes all the more miraculous given that  that it actually works at all. A real sense of drama drives Cloud Atlas, with, to borrow a metaphor from the film itself, the whole thing playing out in a manner aligned with an orchestral work, in the the way in which it all comes together. The multi-faceted narrative lends to some startling set pieces: as a laser shoot out takes place on a bridge in the far future, it’s cut to a tense sequence of similar thrill on a ship in the 19th century, while similar tinkering is done with the films more somber moments, as emotion is layered on top of further emotion.

Storytelling, and notions of storytelling, sit firm and centre atop the pile of the films chief concerns, with every element of the films narrative structure concerned with the relaying of information, both diegetically and non-diegetically. The figures in the work are as concerned with sharing tales with one another as they are with projecting them to the audience. Cloud Atlas recalls another recent film of similar virtue (and from the Warner stable too, no less) in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, which too dealt with notions of storytelling, and of audience reactions towards, and expectations of, narrative standing. The film approaches performance with in a manner comparable too, with the employment of many of the same members of cast in each separate section, so while Tom Hanks may play an antagonistic hotelier in one sequence, he also appears in a non-corresponding role in another section. Notions of performance from the perspective of the player has infused and informed a number of other features in 2012, with Cloud Atlas echoing the sentiment of the earlier likes of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.

The notion of an “Eternal recurrence” sits firmly at the centre of Cloud Atlas, with the film’s ultimate thesis one concerned with the creation of Faith and in turn the concept of revolution. While any work approaching such bold ideas in such an unorthodox manner is an expectant candidate for a skewed final standing (and this is most certainly true of Cloud Atlas) one cannot help but feel that Tykwer and the Wachowski Two have pulled off something rather spectacular here. It’s audacious and bold, and ultimately one of the most impressive experiments in the mainstream cinema of 2012. Alongside the aforementioned Zack Snyder film and it’s counterworks in the Wachowski ouevre, Cloud Atlas is destined to become one of the defining texts of the post-Film After Film generation.


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