Six Ways to Bonkers
The cinematic calendar used to be so straightforward: big films across the summer and – to a lesser extent – at Christmas, Oscar-bait early in the year, and unpretentious genre movies the rest of the time. That was what you could pretty much expect down the local multiplex, but things seem to be changing – the onset of blockbuster season has been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, while I'm seeing signs of an odd phenomenon developing in March. This month seems to be turning into a dumping ground for huge and expensive studio releases which the producers seem to have lost all faith in, an elephant's graveyard of the overblown and underscripted.
This is largely based, I must say, on the fact that it was this time last year that John Carter of Mars came out, and currently we are enjoying the presence on our screens of Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings. The sheer scale and scope of this movie, not to mention the stellar cast list, would normally suggest a major release. As it is, the movie seems to have been slipped out by people who don't really know what to do with it. This may be because Cloud Atlas is barking, barking mad.
How to describe this movie? It does not have a plot. At least, not one; it has six, with tenuous connections linking them.
- In 1849, a young man (Jim Sturgess) assisting his father's slave trading activities in the South Pacific falls foul of the avaricious intentions of a corrupt doctor, with his one chance of survival lying in the hands of a former slave.
- In 1936, an ambitious and amoral young musician (Ben Whishaw) finds work as the amanuensis of a distinguished and elderly composer. However, when the older man attempts to take the credit for his employee's original work, he finds himself in an impossible situation.
- In 1972, an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) discovers a conspiracy to smear the nuclear power industry by certain other vested interests. It quickly becomes apparent that the conspirators are more than happy to kill to protect their secret.
- In 2012, a literary agent (Jim Broadbent) finds himself pursued for non-existent royalties by the gangster relatives of a former client. However, his choice of refuge leaves a lot to be desired...
- In 2144, a clone servitor (Doona Bae) is rescued from her corporate enslavement and shown something of the wider world which she inhabits – a world which some people believe she has the power to greatly change for the better.
- And in a far more distant, post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) belonging to a primitive tribe strikes an alliance with an emissary from a more advanced civilisation, one that may affect the fates of every surviving human on Earth.
The movie cuts between these different stories across its very considerable running time. Oh, but it’s not as straightforward as that sounds! In addition to the simple narrative links between the different plots – one character appears in two of them, Whishaw's character reads a book about Sturgess, Doona Bae watches a movie adaptation of Jim Broadbent's experiences, and so on – there are all sorts of other odd things happening. The main characters of all the stories share the same suggestive birthmark, and one character appears to have prophetic dreams concerning one of the later stories.
Most obviously, however, the film is mainly held together by the fact that the same actors appear in different roles in the different stories. So in addition to the tribesman, Tom Hanks plays the murderous doctor in 1849, a nuclear physicist in 1972, and so on. Just to give you an idea of the sheer scope and bounding absurdity of Cloud Atlas, in this film Hugh Grant – Hugh Grant! – plays a slave trader, a hotel manager, the nuclear plant boss, Jim Broadbent's dodgy brother, a Korean restaurant manager – not the manager of a Korean restaurant, but a Korean man who manages an eating-spot – and a cannibal warlord.
I have to confess that, after a while, each appearance by one of the ensemble cast in a new guise was greeted with hoots of laughter at the screening I attended. This comparison-wrangling idea seems to have caught on, with the Wachowskis describing this movie as 'Moby Dick meets 2001: A Space Odyssey' but one British critic riposting with 'Little Britain meets Blake's 7' (if I'd taken my own Comparison Wrangler to this movie I suspect his head would have exploded). I must confess that I tend more towards the latter view, with the important provisos that I actually like Blake's 7, and that some of the more outrageous dressing-up seemed to me to be intentionally played for laughs.
I mean, I can't imagine any meeting by sane and intelligent movie creatives where they sat around and said 'Okay, we've got this character of a middle-aged English nurse, a real battleaxe of a woman, who shall we get to play her?' and the final choice of – wait for it – Hugo Weaving could possibly be intended seriously. The same probably goes for Ben Whishaw's appearance as Hugh Grant's wife. Even so, I honestly have no idea what to make of Tom Hanks' brief turn as a thuggish, shaven-headed author, where he employs an accent that honestly defies description – is it meant to be Cockney? Irish? Pakistani? I truly had no idea.
Of course, this also leads the film into dodgy territory, as many of the cast pop up in – er – trans-ethnic makeup at various points. Halle Berry probably gets the medal here, playing characters of four different ethnicities and both genders at different points in the movie. The film never seems to be doing so for intentionally comic effect, and no-one actually blacks up, but even so I think this is probably questionable, and definitely adds to the vaulting weirdness of the experience.
That said, taken on their own terms and overlooking all the fun and games with casting and makeup, several of the stories work really well – as vignettes, if nothing else. Being the kind of person that I am, I most enjoyed the Wachowskis' attempts at industrial dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF, which are visually superb and include some brilliantly-mounted action, but the Broadbent-led section is also hugely entertaining and the most comedic in tone. One thing you can say about Cloud Atlas is that its genre-hopping and tone-switching mean that it really does have something for everyone somewhere in its running time.
I had feared this movie might be pretentious and smug, but I didn't find this at all – I found it to be terrific entertainment, with literally never a dull moment even across three hours. If it had been an hour longer I think I would still have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is by no means perfect, either in the specifics of the individual stories (the degenerate argot used by Hanks in the post-apocalypse really needs subtitles), or in its wider message: I still have no idea what the film as a whole is trying to suggest, beyond a vague universality in human aspirations and the challenges we face across the ages. Nevertheless, the insane ambition and vaulting oddness of Cloud Atlas, together with the fact that this is a technically superb film, combined to make it one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I've had at the cinema in ages. An early contender for film of the year.