I didn’t have much interest in Cloud Atlas until I saw this still of Hugh Grant. Yep, in Cloud Atlas Hugh Grant reprises his role as the flesh eating, post apocalyptic savage from Four Weddings and I have to say it’s a pretty great role for him. In fact I would go so far as to say that all of Hugh Grants roles were good and that we should all just cut him some slack and stop pigeon-holing him as a bumbley-mouthed affable English wanker who is only fit for romancing Renee Zellweger and start casting him in a few more villainous roles. Hell, Cloud Atlas is basically a show reel on its own as he (and the other actors in the film) all play several roles and he does well in roles as varied as the aforementioned cannibal to a villainous 1970s waistcoat wearer – here’s hoping he has a full-on John Travolta style come-back (and that he stops gracefully before he has a full-on John Travolta style second decline*).
I suppose I should explain – Cloud Atlas is a story told by an old man around a campfire. He is recounting several, seemingly unconnected (at first) stories from different periods in history. As it goes on we see how it all ties together (Everything Is Connected as the strapline says) in a big, cosmic way that really makes you think, etc. It’s the sort of thing that the word epic used to be used to describe before it was hijacked by internet teenagers and left as a shallow husk of it’s former self. In each period of the story the various characters are played by the same few actors, so we see people like Hugh Grant and Tom Hanks crop up again and again in wildly different roles. There is no real narrative significance (except maybe that Old Man Campfire has a limited imagination for faces) but it is quite fun trying to spot who is who and it helps tie the various mini-films together into a more cohesive whole.
Tom Hanks does quite well in his various roles, including a pretty hilarious stint as an Irish or maybe Cockney gangster/author. It seems like quite a well judged joke to cast Tom Hanks in such varied roles but he pulls it off I would say. Halle Berry did well too I think which surprised me as she is quite lousy usually (despite having an Oscar somehow). Jim Broadbent is just Jim Broadbent in everything: sometimes a bit more eccentric and sometimes a bit less crazy grandpa, but always essentially the same. Unlike Tom Hanks I don’t think he brings much variety so I am not convinced he was the perfect person to cast in multiple roles but if you like Jim Broadbent then good news – he’s in this. Doona Bay was great although I think an emotionally-stunted Korean clone waitress was a role that Keanu Reeves was born to play. An other Wachowski favourite, Hugo Weaving, was fine in most of his roles and he is no stranger to cross-dressing (erm, in films) but I think the make-up job on Nurse Noakes was a bridge too far as he looked like a transvestite burn victim. And the transformation of Chinese actor Xun Zhou into Rose (at the very end of the film) is frankly a bit disconcerting and quite unnecessary. Halle Berry as Ovid pretty much sums this up – a minor role with no real dialogue where they have clearly gone to a lot of trouble to make her completely unrecognisable for no apparent reason except to make you go ‘oooh, that’s clever isn’t it’ during the end credits. It’s a gimmick really but I enjoyed it and it’s up there with the all time great ‘one actor multiple role’ films like ‘Being John Malkovich’ and ‘Jack And Jill.’
I’m a big fan of the Wachowskis – I loved ‘The Matrix’ (no big surprise there) and thought ‘V For Vendetta’ was better than Alan Moore would have expected. And I totally love ‘Speed Racer’ and consider it one of the best films I have ever seen for reasons I am not sure I am really capable of expressing or even really understand. I mean, it’s like a hallucinogen bomb that shatters expectations of films and stories in a frighteningly colourful way. If Citizen Kane is the go-to example of ‘films as art’, then Speed Racer is a great example of an emergent and subversive pop art movement. But that’s another story. I also really admire Lana Wachowski who must be incredibly resilient and strong-willed to do what she has done, especially in the internet-enabled gaze of horribly immature geek culture (and it occurs to me that maybe some of the gender swapping roles in this film were her idea). Also she has cool hair.
There is no doubt that the Wachowskis are underrated and, I expect, will continue to be underrated by refusing to make even a potentially Oscar-baiting story like Cloud Atlas in a more conventional and Oscar-baiting manner. The weakest part of the film is the Tom Tykwer directed section called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish which largely features Jim Broadbent and is the comic relief part of the story. It’s just a bit hackneyed and conventional, but fortunately it is not over-long, not especially offensive and the great thing about Cloud Atlas is that you are basically flicking through six films at once, so if you don’t like one segment, another segment will be along in a second. It’s good value for money even if you only like three of the six films considering it is three hours long.
I think that could also be leveled as a criticism though – it does occasionally feel like Cloud Atlas is a film that has found a way to cheat and blend the cool sci-fi shootouts of ‘The Matrix’ with the tall ships of ‘Master and Commander’, the 70s spy drama of ‘All The Presidents Men’, a Jim Broadbent version of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and so forth. Need an exciting shootout to spice up a slow segment? Switch to the future and have a jet bike chase! Then switch back to the 19th century for some serious drama about slavery, and then some jungle ‘Mad Max’ stuff with cannibal Hugh Grant… and so forth. It’s a film that can have it’s cake and eat it – but to the Wachowski’s credit they don’t exploit it. There are no heavy-handed, tear-jerking emotional scenes, no single actor that gets every big dramatic moment, it’s all done at a refreshingly brisk pace and with a tongue-in-cheek style. It could very easily have come across as pompous melodrama (especially considering Tom Hanks is in it).
The film is not about reincarnation which is somewhat confusing considering the reappearance of actors and parallels between their relationships (such as the 1970s Tom Hanks and Halle Berry compared with the After The Fall couple). It’s more about a sort of cosmic karma thing or a mystic ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ where we see how one life or seemingly insignificant event can ripple on down the time-portals of history in a big interconnected tangle. I won’t pretend I really understand it but it is really interesting.
Cloud Atlas is unpretentious and fun, full of exciting explosions, martial arts, gunfights and jet bike chases if you like that sort of thing and ruminations on the nature of human existence, Marxism, and intellectual mysticism if that is more your cup of tea. I like all that junk.
*John if you are reading this your website is horrible, kinda sweet but horrible.