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Legends of the Fall

Cinemetrics: When Bad Movies Happen to Good Books

Cloud Atlas is an overscrambled mess. It didn't have to be that way.

One of the all-time great film-geek novels, Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, tells the story of a guy named Vikar, a “cinéautistic” who sets out on a quest to discover a secret ur-movie “that’s been hidden, one frame at a time, in all the movies ever made.” Somewhere in the course of this quest, Vikar becomes a film editor — his slogan: “Fuck continuity” — who confounds his Hollywood patrons with Zen koans about the way in which movie time is not linear but circular.1 His idea is that every movie, no matter when or where it was made, is continuous with every other movie. That cinema is an independent reality: It never really ceases to exist, even when we’re not watching.

With Cloud Atlas, the Wachowski siblings and Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer have made a movie that is itself explicitly about this idea. That’s what you would say if you were being kind, anyway. The David Mitchell novel from which the film was adapted is often said to be “unfilmable.” My informed guess is that Cloud Atlas, the movie, will just as frequently be described as “unwatchable.” And for good reason: The film, which takes the book’s six independent-but-interlocking plots and mashes them up like Girl Talk at a frat party, and which calls upon Hugo Weaving to portray, among other things, an assassin, a busty nurse, a Korean anti-terror agent, and a Mad Hatter–type hallucination who represents death, is a chore to get through, a numbing swirl of semi-incoherent storytelling, complicated makeup, and melodrama.

It’s also occasionally magical.

In Aleksandar Hemon’s adoring New Yorker profile of the Wachowskis, we learn that Warner Bros. did Cloud Atlas the non-favor of modeling the film’s commercial potential on Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, “because it had three autonomous story lines set in different eras.” The Fountain also lost almost $20 million, and so for a time Warners declined to distribute Cloud Atlas, until Tom Hanks signed on and the directors could pitch the film as a story about Hanks slowly morphing from “a bad person” into “a good person.” (This is not really what Cloud Atlas is about, but why not, right? Arcs! People love them.)

A more accurate comparison point, though perhaps not from an economic-modeling perspective, might have been Christian Marclay’s 2010 art installation The Clock, for which Marclay edited together thousands of films using the same kind of abstract logic Tykwer and the Wachowskis did. The continuity in The Clock is not based on its actors or its plot but on time itself. In Marclay’s installation, when Clark Gable picks up the phone and dials, he might get George Clooney at the other end of the call, so long as the bedside clock has turned over from 2:00 to 2:01 in the split second between the two shots.

Similarly, though Cloud Atlas is nominally about its six subplots, which “begin” on a 19th-century merchant ship and “end” in a Hawaiian campfire story told somewhere deep in an after-the-Fall future, the movie is really about the way that languages and appearances change, but the basic math of person-to-person interaction stays constant. The clock here is human nature.

In interviews, the Wachowskis have talked about Cloud Atlas in terms of the “eternal recurrence” of the soul and the butterfly wings-y way that a tiny gesture in the past can completely change the future. They’ve also noted that Cloud Atlas is among the most expensive independent films ever made — it cost somewhere around $100 million, according to most estimates, and runs to nearly three hours. The directors were able to cobble this money together because they’d once made The Matrix. But they were also forced to cobble that money together, because after the is-there-weed-in-this-popcorn? blockbuster brilliance of The Matrix they made two sequels that made even less sense than the Baudrillard books they were ostensibly glossing, followed by the kandy-kolored tangerine-flake money-bonfire Speed Racer. Hollywood financiers may know very little about art, but they’re pretty good at spotting the moment the dice have gone cold.

A friend recently described the problem with the Wachowskis as “bad taste in big ideas,” which is one way to put it: Even the for-kids Speed Racer somehow ended up being about a profoundly complicated stock-manipulation scheme and the ontology of race-car driving. (E.g., Matthew Fox’s Racer X: “It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if we let racing change us.”) For two people fascinated with identity (not for nothing did Larry Wachowski become Lana), there are not many three-dimensional characters in their films. The last few, in particular, have played like echoing sci-fi stage sets on which one actor after another steps forward to make a long, enigmatically deadpan speech about the nature of the universe and the long arc of moral justice.

Cloud Atlas, the novel, is a philosophical book, sure. But it’s also a series of virtuoso genre exercises, one after the other: a 19th-century seafarer’s diary, complete with period-appropriate descriptions of “whales turned to islets of gore”; an early 20th-century epistolary gay romance; a hard-boiled ’70s-era detective mystery; a contemporary farce about publishing and old age; a Neo Seoul-set 2144 interrogation of a rebellious food-service clone; and, finally, a postapocalyptic distant future told in tattered Jar Jar Binks syntax. Mitchell is deliberate in teasing out narrative and thematic echoes between the stories. But in his book, which is told chronologically, each subplot has its own voice and mood that we can dwell in for a while.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis, meanwhile, shuffle scenes from each plot like drunken blackjack dealers. The camera’s color palette and the script’s language change between story lines, but the feel remains very much the same. It’s hard to get invested in any one character when we’re being constantly swept on to the next. (The directors’ decision to have each of their main actors play up to six roles across the various subplots probably doesn’t help.) This is pleasurably strange for 15 or 30 minutes and numbing at 164. You might come away with a lingering affection for Ben Whishaw’s idealistic young composer, or Doona Bae’s heartbroken rebel-clone. But, as in the latter Matrix films, Tykwer and the Wachowskis can’t seem to resist turning their characters into delivery systems for dorm-room-style chats about the interconnectivity of mankind. And they do this in the on-the-nose kind of way that makes you wonder why they needed to make an entire movie about that idea — as opposed to, say, merely printing up a gold-embossed business card to hand out at parties that reads “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others, past and present.”

That, at least, would’ve been cheaper.

Still, there is something eerie and electric about Cloud Atlas. I am not particularly moved by the version of the movie that is about how our spirits journey valiantly through eternity. But I am fascinated with the version of Cloud Atlas that is about the way that Tom Hanks is always recognizably Tom Hanks, no matter what movie he’s in. The eternal recurrence of the soul is one thing; the eternal recurrence of cinema, the way that six effectively separate movies are revealed to be the same movie — that is something very different.

It’s about our experience as moviegoers. Cloud Atlas‘s notion of a mystical common thread that binds disparate plots and characters has a way of spreading out past the edges of the movie itself. So when Hugo Weaving is doing his signature clipped, villainously blank dialogue, we are encouraged to see not just the Neo Seoul bureaucrat he’s currently incarnating, but also all his other roles in the film, and all his other roles in other films, including his similarly clipped turn as Agent Smith in The Matrix. In Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks plays a predatory doctor, a satanically goateed thug, a face-tattooed goat herder, and a host of other people, but if those are the rules, then why stop there? He might as well be Forrest Gump and Jimmy Dugan, too. Hanks as an actor is the sum of every life he’s ever lived onscreen, and Cloud Atlas is among the few films that have ever attempted to dramatize that fact.

Like The Clock, Cloud Atlas also exposes the shared vocabulary in what seem, initially, like wildly disparate movies. “You can come with me,” a character says in one Cloud Atlas story line. The film then cuts to a ship setting out to sea, an image from a completely different subplot. Next we see someone reading an old journal account of that sea voyage — followed, finally, by yet another character, years later, reading a letter that describes the journal itself. These events have very little to do with each other. But by editing them together, the dream logic that unites all movies is made manifest: As the film’s tiresome tagline goes, everything is connected. Fuck continuity.

Zach Baron (@xzachbaronx) is Grantland’s Cinemetrician.

Filed Under: Books, Cloud Atlas, Movies