October 27, 2012

Queer Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski.
Writers: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski. Based upon the novel by David Mitchell.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant,

This adaptation, brought to the screen by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, of David Mitchells' novel highlighting the interconnected nature of the human experience, is visually amazing, but also occasionally incoherent. Furthermore, a lack of subtlety and too much cross cutting between stories prevents Cloud Atlas from reaching the heights it so desperately strives for.

Cloud Atlas tells 6 different stories about those elements that tie us humans together and drive us apart, set across different time periods, starting in the period of American Slavery and going into the far distant future.

The Queering
Both the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker are easily among the most ambitious filmmakers working today. However, ambition does not always equal success. Fortunately, the filmmakers set the bar so high that the minor missteps do not derail the project as a whole. That does not mean that the problems are not serious in of themselves.

The biggest issue I had was with the frequent cross cutting between stories, which kills a great deal of narrative tension. I get that this was done to emphasize the connections between the stories, but frequently this method not only kills a lot of suspense, it ends up being too on the nose. In the same category is the overused voice-over, which tends to go about pointing out things to the audience that could have been demonstrated in a more cinematic or less obvious fashion.

While I'm bitching, I should also probably point out that Tom Hanks, while otherwise a fine choice for the roles he's playing, frequently sounds like he's chewing on marbles whenever he speaks while playing a character with an accent. Otherwise I had no issues with the acting.

Cloud Atlas has been described hyperbolicly as the most ambitious film ever made. There is an argument to be made that this is true. There are so many themes, ideas, bumping against characters who are all then reborn in different stories, that it gets difficult to keep track of everything and everyone.

There was so many ideas, motifs, and visual metaphors that I wanted to properly analyze and for which one viewing was nowhere near sufficient to do so. I can only offer up vague hints at what I think the Wachowskis' and Twyker were trying to say. Reincarnation is touched upon repeatedly. The idea of love conquering all. The lust for freedom from oppression. Consequence versus coincidence. These are ideas that have been present in the directors previous works. In fact Cloud Atlas highlights the similarities between these directors previous works in ways that I had not previously thought of. I would go into more detail here, but I don't feel like writing an entire novel and one would be necessary to do this properly.

Criticism has been leveled at Cloud Atlas over the fact that there are actors playing roles of different races. Things like black face and yellow face are things that have been used to mock people of color for decades. While I'm not going to tell people what they should be offended over, it's worth pointing out that the criticism tends to focus on the white actors who are playing Asian characters, and ignores the fact that pretty much every actor and actress (black, white, and asian) ends up playing a role of a different race at some point. Halle Barry plays a white woman in one segment and a male asian doctor in another. Donna Rae also plays a white abolitionist.

Berry is also not the only one who transgresses gender, Hugo Weaving also takes on the role of a female nurse. Other queer content includes a segment about a gay man who is blackmailed by a famous composer into being the older mans muse. This story ends tragically when the young man kills himself. While it gets tiring to have LGBTQ characters always ending up killing themselves, I could not help but wonder how much Lana Wachowski saw herself in this story, given that she recently admitted to having nearly committed suicide herself.

I get the criticism against films where a LGBTQ protagonist ends up killing themselves, but I think it is also possible to go too far the other way and end up erasing the fact that too many in our community are driven by the oppression we face to the most extreme solutions possible. Just saying.

Furthermore, going back to having characters who play roles that transgress race and gender, I think I should point out there are two potentially problematic issues. One is that the majority of the lead cast is predominantly white men compared to a smaller number of females and minorities. The second is that the filmmakers, in attempt to highlight the main themes of the films, are trying to get the audience to see past an individuals race. A noble effort, but this can still be seen as problematic in that people who claim that they "don't see race" are usually white people who wish to ignore not only the existence of people of color, but pretend that we live in a post-racial society. This ultimately results in the erasure of black people and the issues that they face. I am not saying that this happens here, but I would argue that such an interpretation is possible.

While Cloud Atlas fails to make it all the way to the stars that it shoots for, it still manages to soar in the upper atmosphere above the clouds. Highly recommended, no atlas is too expensive if you need one to find this movie.

The Rating
***1/2 out of ****


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1 comment:

  1. A big, bold, and interesting work of staggering ambition and artistry. It's not perfect by any means, but it definitely held my interest for the longest time it was on-screen. Good review Jeremy.


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