Monday, October 29, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Actual Review

Now that I've got the elephants in the room out of the way, I think I'm ready to talk about the film "Cloud Atlas".

There are few films that leave me absolutely speechless. Even movies that I love I typically have a number of tangible feelings that I tend to express while I leave the theater. This sometimes annoys my friends who generally like to "bask" rather than ruin the afterglow with critical thought. However, it does occasionally happen where I, too, prefer to bask rather than jump right into picking a work apart. Still, even in these cases, I do HAVE critical thoughts a-brewin', I'm just suppressing them in order to fully enjoy the moment. This was the case for "Looper".

"Cloud Atlas" was that rare film that truly left me speechless. Not a critical thought came to mind at any point for a very long time. It was just this overwhelming feeling of peace and joy and wonder. My mind was flying off into countless different directions, but none of them could be adequately described as amounting to anything other than, "Wow."

I really want to tell you how I feel about the film.

But, much like the film, I'm going to have to ask you all to be a bit patient with me, because in order to really help you understand why this film means so much to me, I have to explain the unique and challenging things about it without delving too deeply into the specifics. I do not intend to spoil much, mostly because I really don't have to. This isn't *that* sort of movie. Understanding what happens isn't the same as understanding the movie itself, but I do want you to understand the movie, at least in the broadest sense of it, before I get into my personal feelings on it.

The Structure

This film has 6 stories, but it's not like "Pulp Fiction" where the stories each have their own little arcs where they are more or less self-contained and compartmentalized with beginnings, middles, and ends. These stories tag out between one another at regular intervals from beginning to end, connected as a sort of stream of consciousness, with the fluidity of a game of "Marvel Vs. Capcom". It juggles.

The best way I could describe the structure is "ADHD", and not in a pejorative sense. As someone with ADHD, I can tell you that this movie's structure is pretty much exactly how my mind works. Like, I might be talking to someone about my cat, Niko, which then makes me think about the character he's named after from the "Circle of Magic" series, which will then make me thing about fantasy stories in general which will then make me think about etc. etc. etc. My mind is a jumble of tangentially connected threads and it is often a struggle to keep them tied together. I will put something on hold but then forget I did it and so it will sit there, possibly indefinitely. This film, thankfully, does not forget about the threads that it leaves hanging, though the viewer certainly might. Still, when people complain that the structure of this film is confusing or incoherent, I have little sympathy for them. Maybe their minds can only work linearly, and in a way I both envy and pity them. It must be nice to never lose track of your thoughts, but it must also be sad to feel so limited. In any case, if you ever wondered what it's like to have ADHD, this film is probably best way I could explain it to you.

Additionally, each story is literally a story within the universe of the film. The first story is a journal that is talked about or physically present in a number of the other stories of the film (possibly all of them, but I would have to see it again to be certain of that). The second story is told as a collection of letters that are found and examined by the character in the third story, whose adventures are turned into a mystery novel by a young friend of hers, who then submits the story to a publisher who is the primary character of the fourth story, whose actions are turned into a film which partially inspires the actions of the characters in the fifth story, whose life and words are recorded, deified, and chronicled as religious texts by the primitive peoples of the sixth story, which is told as a more traditional "story around a campfire" by one of the characters at the film's beginning and end. It is interesting to note that each story represents a different story structure in itself. First person, second person, third person, non-fiction, historical fiction, fiction with a factual basis, written, verbal, visual... And on top of that, each story contains its own specific genre.

As if that weren't already enough, another noteworthy piece is that while each story is in some way present in each of the other stories, including the ones that precede it, the stories are not narratively connected in any substantial way. The actions in one story do not directly influence the actions within another story, at least not in any obvious way. Each story is more or less self-contained and doesn't require the other stories in order to make sense or be fulfilling.

The film is also based on a book, and one might expect that the book is structured similarly, but it is not. It is actually structured in a more traditional way, with each story told one at a time.

So the question that might be on your minds is "Why?" Why would they decide to tell these stories all at once as a series of mini-tangents?

Well, because film in general does not lend itself well to several self-contained stories. Yes, it works in "Pulp Fiction", but that's because there's an underlying meta-narrative that unfolds. It feels like one big story rather than a bunch of smaller stories. "Cloud Atlas" is certainly not that. Each story has its own arc and each arc is completed within each story. If they had constructed the movie in the same way the book is structured, it would have been incredibly trying.

As an example, some of you might have seen the film "Grindhouse". If you haven't it was originally presented as a double-feature. While the two films were tied together by a similar aesthetic and the same universe, they each were their own self-contained films. While I absolutely loved "Grindhouse", my biggest problem was that while it felt like a singular "experience", it did not feel like a singular "film", and I admit, it does try my patience to have to sit through two different films back-to-back.

Books, on the other hand, have the luxury of relatively infinite patience on the part of the reader. The reader can take breaks in between stories, flip back and forth between them to find thematic connections, and develop their own sense of rhythm.

If they had structured "Cloud Atlas" in this way, it would have been absolutely terrible. The fact is, when we go to a film, we expect a certain kind of experience. Establish the story, present the conflict, action develops, climax is reached, story is completed. If you force an audience to go through this entire arc more than once, it is asking a lot. If you do it to them SIX times, you might as well give up.

So they layered all of the stories on top of each other. This accomplishes two things. First, it allows the audience to have a singular emotional connection for all of the stories together. Second, it allows the film to visually draw the parallels and points of intersection between the stories in a very literal sense by cutting between them.

By structuring it in this manner, it allows the audience to feel the movie as "one" experience. None of the stories launch into their conflicts before all of the other stories have been fully established, and because the stories are connected thematically and emotionally, it never feels like the movie is grinding to a halt so it can get all of its pieces in order. It is masterfully edited and written. Truly, this was the only way this film was even possible.

The Themes

Another question that might arise might be, "Why do all of these stories need to be told together?" This is indeed a valid question.

After all, this sort of structure has been used before. The first major one that comes to mind is "Love Actually", which had several interweaving but largely disconnected love stories all playing out in the same emotional arc. However, one of the main reasons it worked there was because they all had the same genre and temporal setting to anchor the meta-narrative to.

"Cloud Atlas" is not anchored. At all. Unlike "Love Actually", there is no common time frame, there is no specific genre, there is no specific tone or style. So why tell these seemingly mismatched stories all together?

Well, because all of the stories are essentially the same story.

When people talk about this film, they say that the central theme is "freedom", and I might be inclined to agree, but I think it's talking about a very specific kind of freedom. A sort of spiritual freedom. The ability to define oneself. The paradox that while our physical forms matter very little, they are also sacred because they are defined by us.

That theme is reflected, not only within the content of the stories, but by the stories themselves. This film is in some ways a fractal or a synecdoche where the whole can be seen as referencing a part and a part can be seen in reference to the whole. There are very small aspects of this film with very big underlying messages and very broad interpretations of this film that also speak to the same messages.

OK, that was really obtuse, so let me try and get a little more specific.

Each of the six stories in "Cloud Atlas" are essentially the same story. An individual is a part of a system that benefits from the strong provoking the weak. Sometimes they themselves are benefiting from that system, but it does not always matter. One character betrays another usually in relation to the system of exploitation inherent in that particular setting, but always specifically for their own personal gain. This betrayal spurs the individual character to stand up for the weak (which may or may not be themselves) and learn the value of doing so.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is a story we've all heard a million times before, and the writers are aware of that. It is why they are able to weave these stories together as one continuous arc, in spite of their great variation.

So now you might be wondering, "If all of the stories are essentially the same, why tell more than one?"

Indeed. Why tell more than one? The same could be said for stories in general. Over the cosmically brief time humanity has existed, we have produced billions of stories, most of which are essentially the same story when you dig deep enough. So why do we keep making them over and over again? Why have more than one movie? Why not just pick the best one and watch it over and over again?

And, even more interestingly, the same could be said of people. We all have things that make us unique, but if you dig deep enough we are all the same. We can be categorized and defined by labels for sex, race, gender, diseases, conditions, measurements, and generations, and yet we can still all be called the same singular species. Why not just pick the best human and clone it, disregarding all others?

Obviously, it's because those differences are what make each life worth living, even if they are also what can drive us apart. Racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia... these are all beliefs that stem from an obsession with the differences between us. "Cloud Atlas" confronts the audience with those differences and at once tells us that they are all meaningless and yet are the most important things about us. We shouldn't let our differences as people drive us apart because it's what's inside that counts, but our differences should still be celebrated and embraced and above all else, defended.

In regards to the stories themselves, this message carries over. Yes, all of the stories are essentially the same, but they are all also very much individual and obviously different. The futuristic sci-fi epic is the same story as the silly comedy of errors that takes place in the present day and involves elderly people attempting to escape an old folks home. The film wants us to understand that these stories are the same, but wants us to enjoy their individual characteristics as well.

It's about seeing our differences not as barriers but as points of connection.

This is the theme that carries through all of the characters, it is the theme of each of the stories, it is the theme for the film itself, it is the theme that presumably drives the creators of the film and, according to them, ought to drive us all.

While the main reason I compartmentalized the "yellowface" issue in its own post was because I felt it needed addressing on its own merits, I must mention it one more time while I am discussing the theme.

As deeply problematic as the use of yellowface is, the film seems aware of how problematic that is and uses our inherent baggage with it to influence the message presented within the film. There's a reason why the most deeply offensive decision to make Jim Sturgess appear "Korean" was used in probably the most tonally serious story of the film while the most socially acceptable decision to make Hugo Weaving appear as an old nurse is in the most lighthearted story of the film. The story that takes place in Neo Seoul is by far the most horrifying, and I feel that the use of yellowface is meant to repulse and jar us just as Hugo Weaving's cross-dressing is meant to make us laugh. We get the impression that the distinctly Western-looking oppressors of Neo Seoul are walking contradictions who reject their heritage, referring to the once-native language as "subspeak" and referring to themselves as "pureblood". Yellowface carries that baggage of racism that provokes a very strong reaction, and while many who felt that reaction ultimately did not enjoy the film, I don't doubt that they understood it.

Even in this one visual detail, we can see the theme of the film revealed. The sense of perversion that arises from an obsession with the physical form, the abuse of those differences to establish a system of exclusion and power, and the burning inherent desire to reject that system in celebration of those differences as well as the elements that unite us as one.

I Fucking Love This Movie

When I have given this film an actual numerical "score" for RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, both times I have given it a perfect score, but only because if I were to assign a numerical representation of how I feel about the movie, the highest possible value is the only one I can honestly ascribe to it.

Still, the problem with numerical values is that they aim to get a sort mathematical and statistical quantification for the consensus of a particular work's overall quality. By giving it a 10/10 or a 5/5, it can imply any number of things that may or may not be true. It might imply that I believe this film is "perfect", which in itself can have any number of meanings. It might imply that this movie is better than every other movie that I didn't give a perfect score. It might imply that I'm trying to offset the negative scores given to it by people who feel differently about it than I do.

I'm not sure any of those things are true, though it's also equally possible that they are ALL true. I don't know, but it doesn't really matter.

I do know that, in spite of my perfect scores, not everyone will enjoy this movie. In fact, I saw this film with two people, and one of them had such huge problems with it that it erupted in a very heated debated after a very long awkward silence.

And no, not everyone who dislikes this movie dislikes it for what I talked about in my previous post. There are plenty of people who just failed to connect with it out of no fault of their own.

But let's consider the nature of love for a moment. When you love a person, every part of that person is important to you. Every aspect -- physical, mental, and spiritual -- is vital to what makes that person what they are. Even the flaws do not come off as flaws to you. To you, that other person is amazing, if not perfect. They are your favorite person. If you were to score that person, you would not score them objectively.

Obviously, love is inherently subjective. Though the person we love is perfect in our eyes, they are not necessarily perfect in anyone else's. While being loved might make us feel better than we've ever felt, it does not actually speak to our objective quality as human beings. Being loved by a lot of people doesn't make you a better person.

So yes, I love this movie. It may possibly be my favorite movie, at least for now.

But my personal love for a film is not the only thing that makes me give it a perfect score. As I've said in the past, I love the sequels to "The Matrix", but I would not dream of giving them perfect scores, and that is because while I love them, they could have been better. They could have done a number of things differently and I would have enjoyed the films more.

And on a surface level, "Cloud Atlas" feels like a movie that was made specifically for me. I find it intellectually engaging, the structure matches up perfectly with my mental frequency, it has awesome sci-fi stuff, high concepts, actors I love, great visuals, great music, humor, suspense, romance, mystery, tragedy, comedy, chase scenes, pirates, ninjas, robots, clones, spirituality, examinations of race, class, and gender... A lot of these elements alone are the sort of things I go nuts for. In a way, it's not surprising that I love it so much, and often that kind of love will allow you to overlook or understate or even justify certain faults within the subject of your affection.

However, when it comes to "Cloud Atlas", a part of me DOES want to acknowledge the faults with it. The aspects that rub people the wrong way or just bore them entirely frustrate me because they prevent others from connecting with it in the same way I do, so of course a part of me would like them changed. But the deep truth is, none of those changes would improve MY enjoyment of the film. Yes, even in regards to the yellowface. I acknowledge that it is racist, hurtful, and provokes a very strong negative connotation that can be deeply offensive, but that deep and glaring flaw resonates powerfully within the film as a whole and the message it has and the relevance that it still has in our present culture is one aspect that makes the film even greater. Yes, they could have done it a different way and it wouldn't have been as offensive, and perhaps it would have been just as enjoyable and perhaps also provided opportunities for underutilized actors, but it would change the DNA of the film so completely that I hesitate to say that they should have. In a way, changing that approach simply for the sake of deep societal constructs would have been a betrayal of the central theme of the film, which is that we define our physical presence and we have the freedom to decide what that means for ourselves.

This film holds its audience in high regard. It assumes that we already know racism is bad. It's not here to tell us that. It wants us to understand the underlying conflict behind racism and other systems of oppression. Where it exists in life, where it exists in fiction, where it exists in culture, and most painful of all, where it exists within ourselves. In order to do that, it engages with the audience in a very open way.

That is why I can't find fault with the film as a whole. Even though it has faults, I must admit that I would prefer the film with the faults rather than without them. Maybe I'm just being selfish, but that's the truth.

So I think that is why I gave this film a perfect score. I love this film, warts and all, and I would not change a thing. I can't promise that you will love it or even that you won't absolutely hate it, but I know that I want everyone to experience this movie.

Go see this movie. Open yourself up to it. It might be risky, but that's a chance I want you to take, because if you experience anything close to what I experienced, you will be glad you did. And if you don't, then at least you were willing to take a leap and try something different, which is a worthy enough reason in and of itself.


  1. That was awesome. I mean both your review and the film. I couln't agree more on almost everything you wrote. Cloud Atlas is full of the stuff I'm deeply nuts for as well, and having seen it today for the third time, I still walked out from the cinema blown away, lightning-struck, enchanted and awe-inspired. There is so much beauty and truth in its message. A warning perhaps as well, but I prefer to see this coin from the hope-side.

    Thank you for writing this ingenious, bright and intelligent text, and thus enabling me to prolong the pleasure of connecting with the film.
    In gratitude,

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Anon! I'm amazed it's still playing in theaters near you. I wish I could say the same... but I cannot wait to get it on Blu-ray.