He’s seen flashbacks and flash forwards but, as a publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is aware of all those gimmicks, or so he tells us early into Cloud Atlas. But, he warns us, nothing prepared him for the tale that will unspool in the next near three hours. Eventually, though, he did find a connection.
This is, really, a none too subtle form of breaking the fourth wall. Broadbent is telling the audience (few of which went into Cloud Atlas without some suspicion that they were about to get boggled) that what’s about to unfold is amazing and ultimately yields rewards for those who wait. It’s a new sort of film advertising, within the film itself.
The bluntness of the message wouldn’t be so sour had Cloud Atlas lived up to its promise, as many critics are convinced it does. But neither promise is true. Amazing is hardly a word for loosely connected stories set in the past, present, and future intercepting until they lead to…nothing much really. No matter what statement the Wachowskis’ were driving toward (that mankind is connected in ways we can’t imagine? That the incidents of long ago come back in unexpected ways?, etc) there is not justification for the time or means they take and then missing their mark.
The stories themselves are harmless enough, but seen out of context they are mere undistinguished genre scraps. Interesting points dot them all, but not one amounts to originality. A friendship between an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) and the slave (David Gyasi) he helps stowaway to while conducting business with his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving) hints at something more than the usual friendship across the status, but settles for cloying sentimentality. The bizarre story of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a struggling musician, and his big break when he lands a job as the ghost writer for a temperamental pianist (Broadbent) in 1936 Edinburgh is without head or tale. For a thriller, Halle Berry’s moment in the spotlight as an ambitious reporter uncovering the ills of a corporation follows the points of its mold with little deviation before arriving at a mundane conclusion. The future isn’t much brighter. Our venture to the Seoul of the distant future is badly written Huxley and, most disappointing of all considering it purports to reveal the heart of the movie, is the story of a goat herder (Tom Hanks) living in an island long after humanity has largely died out. It ends smiling at the audience, but how are we to respond? The film’s lack of direction creates an absence of mood and we are left without an emotional road to follow. For instance, the best story of all (set in the present) involves Broadbent’s meek but crafty book publisher who gets into a bind with some loan sharks and is finally done in by his brother. But it arrives at comedy arbitrarily and its humor is ineffectual when surrounded by emotional confusion.
Sensitive viewers have criticized the film for its race-bending, a reaction undoubtedly contrary to what the filmmakers expected. To be fair, these cross racial casting decisions were not the result of insensitivity but, rather, a need to dazzle. Well, as astonishing as the make-up that went into the transformation is, Halle Berry’s turn as an old Korean man is nothing more than a costume magician’s grandstanding. Why else wouldn’t they cast a real Korean? This is inverted when Bae Doona is also revealed to play the daughter of a rich white plantation owner. This one is easier to swallow because the film leaves open the possibility that she may be biracial.
Perhaps most offensive of all, ironically, are the two cross-racial castings in which make-up was not used. David Gyasi, a Black Briton, is cast as Autua, a Moriori slave and Berry makes a brief appearance as an Indian party quest. The lack of cosmetics here seems the result of the ignorant conviction that the two actors “looked” Moriori or Indian enough to pass for such without the use of make-up.
The praise ushered unto Cloud Atlas seems to be another case of style triumphing over substance, except even the style is raggedy. Each narrative arc is connected by either a person or the reincarnation of a person (it’s unclear), but the connection does nothing for the ultimate statement. They don’t build up to anything, they simply connect. Ironically, the structure of Cloud Atlas is exactly what Broadbent said it wouldn’t be, a mere gimmick.
No, the critical success of Cloud Atlas owes to undeniably savvy presentation by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer. Strip away the rhetoric and pretentions about art and what most of the critics are truly praising is gimmickry. The filmmakers are well aware of the fail-proof tactic of promising to address the meaning of life and if 2011’s Tree of Life doesn’t prove that any piece of pretentious nonsense making such promises can be lionized, nothing will. They shroud their golden ox with mysticism, golden imagery, and much talk about “big questions” but forget that nothing better explains the mysteries of the world than story of humans. They could have at least started by writing some good ones.