SOME NOTES ON CLOUD ATLAS or LO CUT SALAD

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THE STRUCTURE

We’ve had movies that get jiggy with time, and we’ve had genre mash-ups. Now meet the movie that gets jiggy with time and mashes up genres. Six different genres encompassing period drama, romance, comedy, thriller, sci-fi! It’s a mish-mash-mush-up!

Imagine, if you will, a portmanteau anthology of, say, Master and Commander (set in 1849), Song of Summer (1936), The China Syndrome (1973), Someone from a Tom Sharpe or Kingsley Amis novel Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (2012), Wonderful Days (2144) and, oh, The Bone People meet The Road (2346). Not one after the other, as in the old Amicus horror anthologies, nor nested like Russian Dolls as in David Mitchell’s source novel, but minced into a collage in which the ebb and flow of the narrative extends across different time periods, linked by recurring motifs such as a birthmark in the shape of a comet, a musical sextet, or by the same actors playing a variety of different characters, some of them swapping races and genders.

It’s an astonishing technological and logistical achievement, and a triumph of editing (take a bow film editor Alexander Berner). Despite the radically different settings and time periods, and three different directors (Andy and Lana Wachowski tackled 1849, 2144 and 2346, Tom Tykwer the more contemporary stories) it all hangs together reasonably seamlessly.

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THE DOWNSIDE

For a film that clocks in at nearly three hours, its pleasures are pretty much all visual. It’s lovely to look at, but the themes are skin-deep and never rise above New Agey platitudes such as, “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present.” Oh, and freedom is good and slavery is bad, which seems obvious though I guess it can’t be repeated too often. The structure, in fact, is riskier and more adventurous than the content, which is banal.

And, as with the book, the vernacular in the 2346 segment is distracting, often incomprehensible and frequently twee. (Imagine a future in which, instead of saying “That’s the truth” we’ll all say “That’s the true-true.” That would drive me nuts.) This part of the story is less coherent and more tiresome than the others; even Hugo Weaving in Halloween greenface outstays his welcome.

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THE FUN BITS

A lot of it is fun, in a Barnum & Bailey, wow-would-you-just-LOOK-at-that! sort of way. I would recommend Cloud Atlas on the strength of its bad tooth make-up alone – some splendid rotting sailor’s mouths in the 19th century, and more subtle but equally brilliant early 1970s crowns.

And there’s an excellent bit with a cat, a top contender for a future CAT OF THE DAY.

At times the gimmicky casting feels a bit like an extended sketch show starring a bunch of comedians who keep swapping roles. What larks! Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving play the embodiment of Evil Through the Ages – here a sexist CEO, there a hitman, over there a sadistic tribal chieftain covered in paint and tattoos. One minute Halle Berry is a film noir heroine, the next she’s someone’s wife. Tom Hanks seems to swap between the good guys and the bad, his funniest role being a bad-boy novelist with an indeterminate accent. Scottish? Cockney? Irish? Who knows.

I wasn’t as distracted as others evidently were by Jim Sturgess in yellowface in the 2144 segments, chiefly because I always have difficulty recognising Jim Sturgess anyway, even though this is about the sixth major film in which I’ve seen him. But I was flabbergasted by Halle Berry in whiteface, Korean actress Doona Bae as a Spanish-speaking Mexican and Weaving seemingly applying Dick Emery principles to his Nurse Ratched-type role. I didn’t recognise Ben Whishaw at all in one of his supporting roles.

My favourite bits were the 2144 scenes set in New Seoul, in which the Wachowskis indulge their penchant for cool design concepts (take a bow, production designer Hugh Bateup) candy colours, futuristic chase scenes and explosions – not just of fire but of water.

And the New Seoul segment is the only part of Cloud Atlas in which I felt anything approaching emotional engagement – odd since it’s the most stylistically extreme of the episodes, the one with the most shoot-outs and things blowing up. I appreciate the intricate, brilliantly chopped and edited six-pronged narrative structure of Cloud Atlas, I really do, and I’m impressed by all the work and ingenuity that went into it – but damn me if I didn’t almost find myself wishing they’d set the whole thing in New Seoul and junked the rest.

James Cappio in The Toronto Review of Books elegantly pinpoints the differences between the novel and the film.

THE DISTRIBUTION

ETA: I am increasingly baffled by Cloud Atlas‘s international release schedule. It opened in North America, Turkey and Pakistan in October 2012, in Germany and most of Eastern Europe in November 2012, in the Netherlands (which is where I saw it) in late November 2012. 

It won’t be opening in the UK (even though the novel and its author are both British) until 22 February 2013, and in France and Belgium (which is where I live) until mid-March.

Isn’t this a bit crazy? In the age of downloading and cross-border mail order such a schedule for an eagerly-awaited blockbuster seems almost suicidal. Even if the DVD isn’t released until a later date, a large proportion of the film’s potential audience will surely have succumbed to impatience and found a way to download it illegally (not something I would recommend, especially in the case of a film that actively demands to be seen on a big screen, with proper sound).

Also, by the time the film is released in, for example, the UK, potential audiences with access to the web will already have been saturated by coverage and may feel the film itself is old news. Moreover, the critical consensus will have already been established (although in Cloud Atlas‘s case, this appears to be split down the middle). It’s rare for British critics, I’ve noticed, to go against the grain and watch a film such as on its own terms instead of echoing what they’ve already heard or read, or what the studio’s publicity machine has told them. (For the record, I thought the reception given John Carter in the British media was shockingly inept; it’s one thing to dislike a film, but to reduce it as an excuse for cheap jokes and sneering, without even making a token attempt to review it objectively, is shameful.)

I would love to know more details about the Cloud Atlas distribution deals, and about how much these have been affected by the film not being the product of a major studio, but an independent obliged to set up individual deals with a variety of different distributors, which then have to tough it out against the big studios for cinema space. If anyone reading this could enlighten me, I’d be grateful for any information.

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7 thoughts on “SOME NOTES ON CLOUD ATLAS or LO CUT SALAD

  1. I’m looking ofrward to this for a variety of reasons – loved the book a lot, and fancy the idea of multiple casting. Don’t like what I’ve heard of using the central story as a bookend though, but hey what do I know ? Just kinda wish I was in it to be honest.

  2. I agree, it seems mad (and more than a little disappointing) that the reward for trying something a bit out of the ordinary, is that you get shafted in the distribution. Interesting what you’ve said about the New Seoul segment – for me this was by far the most affecting sequence in the book as well.

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