Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cloud Atlas

I really wanted to like this movie.

It has, after all, a truly great cast.  I have been a fan of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant for a long time.  I am more recently becoming a big fan of both Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent.  And it has, for good measure, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy, and many more.

Then, added to the allure of such a great cast is the intriguing idea that they are all playing multiple roles, in several cases changing race and even gender in the process.

I had read the reviews that said that the movie was incomprehensible and pretentious, but I was sure that those were lowbrow attacks and that I would grasp the true meaning.

After watching it, I can only say this:  it is incomprehensible and pretentious.

I guess I will have some spoilers here, although truly I think your watching experience will not be changed at all by anything I say.

The trailer is great.  It promises a story that shows that "everything is connected," that hope and love are ideals that drive us all and connect us all, and that humanity's innate drive for freedom will succeed.  These are notions that capture all of us.  You should pull the trailer up here and watch it.  It is six minutes long.  It is much better than the movie, and it gives you all the inspiring thoughts and provides glimpses of the famous actors in many different roles.

Some will say the movie is too big - too many characters, too many actors, too many stories.  I think they are wrong.  The problem with the movie is that it is too small, because it seeks to impart truth that is beyond the filmmakers and tell a story that mere mortals cannot tell.

The movie attempts to weave together parts of (for it cannot hope to tell the entirety of any of them) six tales -- in six different time periods with the same actors playing different roles -- in a creative attempt to proclaim that our lives are connected and that our stories move from century to century in a single path.  But six stories in even a three hour movie cannot capture hope and love and the quest for freedom in the way and with the sweeping completeness promised by this movie, and it is pretentious to try.  The script's idea of freedom is told in fits and starts.  Its theme of love - regardless of gender, age, race, or even (ultimately, apparently) species - is repetitive and in your face but not very deeply told.  Its concept of hope is, I guess, that even if mankind destroys itself, we can rebuild some sort of primitive hunter-gatherer society and start again with the help of prescient beings from outer space.  It says that it is about truth, but I am at a loss to say what the "truth" of this movie ultimately is.

The movie is part "2001," part "Lord of the Rings," part "China Syndrome," part "Amistad," and part "Planet of the Apes"... but it is not nearly as good as any of those predecessors.

I kept waiting for it to come together, to make sense.  I did not want to take the three directors' word for it that "everything is connected;" I wanted to see "it" - this promised connectedness - for myself in the movie.  The actors keep turning to the camera and asserting it, but "it" never happens.

Because the subtexts of the movie are largely liberal, some will read my criticism as political.  That would be a mistake.  If I eschewed all movies with liberal points of view, scripts, or plot points, I would not like very many movies.

I just wanted this to live up to its billing.  It does not come close.  And in retrospect, perhaps it can't.  I agree with Roger Ebert that the filmcraft is excellent, that the movie is not boring, and this it is beautifully made.  If that, plus seeing Halle Berry as a young boy and as a white woman and seeing Tom Hanks in six or seven different roles, is enough for you, then you will enjoy the movie.  If you enjoy insider games like trying to figure out if the cannibal king in all the makeup is Hugh Grant or Hugo Weaving, then this is the show for you.

But if you want a movie that actually is convincing that its six stories are interconnected by more than the artificial device of using the same actors, the same randomly placed birthmark, an odd piece of music, and some dialog that proclaims (for no apparent reason) that our lives are all connected, you will leave the movie, like me, disappointed.

This is a not a bad movie.  It is just not what it promises to be. 

I will end with what will probably be, to most of you, a very odd analogy.  To me, watching this movie is like listening to a Bob Dylan album.  I know that a lot of art and passion went into making it, and there are certainly moments that I enjoy.  I know that many of the cool people I know and read will tell me that it is great and that I really should treasure it as art.  But truly, at the end of the day, I just don't really understand what it is trying to say.  Perhaps that is my own failure.

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