Film Review #1 - Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas: Everything is connected! Probably to something ridiculous!

 

I remember, even when I was a kid, thinking it strange in movies, usually from the 80s, when young, upstart kids yelled at their dreamless, dead-inside parents that they'll never be like them, they'll never be losers who, gasp, WORK IN A FACTORY. Was it really so terrible to work in a factory? I mean, come on, it was the 80s. It's not like this was Dickensian London and children were working in clothing mills for 20 hours a day and making pennies. These people were adults, probably union, they had eight or nine hour shifts they pulled, got paid more for overtime and holidays, and they did their jobs and then came home and lived their lives. What was so terrible about that? What was the alternative that these children dreamed of? A future where everyone was either a businessman/entrepreneur or an artist? I guess that's nice and all, but in that future, who'd make all the stuff?

China, apparently. Whoops.

Even from an early age I always wondered why some things were so generally poo-pooed. Another thing I never understood is why fun, entertaining art that's made largely to be enjoyable is less worthwhile than something that takes itself entirely seriously. It's hard to make truly memorable and remarkable flights of fantasy and whimsy, to do so is a great achievement, surely as great as making something that makes the viewer consider their own mortality in quiet terror. I'd even possibly argue moreso.

Which leads us to the Wachowskis. From day one they've always been better showmen than thinkers, but they seem to constantly yearn to shake off their magician's cape and don an academic's robe. I'm in the minority on the Wachowskis as I wasn't even a fan of the first "Matrix" film and I think their best movie by far is the much-reviled "Speed Racer," but even so most agree the last two "Matrix" films were abysmal, largely due to their self-serious tone, meaningless philosophizing, hackneyed allegories and the overly effects-laden action sequences that caused the supposedly dramatic confrontations to feel weightless and flimsy (I'd argue that the first one had nearly all of these problems, but perhaps that's for another time).

And so now "Cloud Atlas," a thoughtful film that dares to ask the tough philosophical questions like "Is racism bad?" "Should women be viewed as equal to men?" "Should homosexuals be persecuted and reviled?" "Should we lock up old people who annoy us in prison-like nursing homes?" and "Is it OK for a government to enslave an entire caste of people and turn them into food?" I'm no Wachowskian mystical native shaman seer, but I'll bet I can probably guess your, and nearly every other person's, response to those questions.

Of course, that's not all the movie is about. It also explores how everyone is connected and we are all part of the great cosmic fabric of humanity. Unless, of course, we work for an energy company. Or are an 18th century businessman. Or a bigot or racist in an era where bigotry and racism were the norm. Or wear crazy face paint. Or are an art critic. For a movie that seems to celebrate the one-ness and communal nature of humanity, it sure does take a lot of glee in murdering a number of people. I haven't seen such an exuberant extinguishing of a critic since The Lady in the Water.

The Wachowskis so desperately want to be philosophical filmmakers, but one of the central elements of philosophy is a continuously-questioning mindset, and the Wachowskis are so overly eager to tell you the answers that there are barely even any questions at all.

Let me provide an example. In the story that takes place the farthest in the future Tom Hanks plays a tribesman who hides in fear while a group of savages attack and murder his brother-in-law and nephew. It's a terrible event, but it is played to make the Hanks character out to be a coward. I suppose, but he was also grossly outnumbered and only had a knife while the numerous marauders were armed with crossbows and swords. Is it cowardice to not openly walk into certain death in a vain attempt to save a loved one? That's actually a philosophical question, but that's not really what the piece is asking.

No, instead there's some other gobbledygook about sending out a signal to get space people to come down and help them, and THEN we get to the big conclusion. While Hanks is out activating the space signal his village is attacked by the savages. Hanks returns too late, all are dead except his young niece, who hid (was SHE a coward?). Hanks then finds a sleeping savage. Throughout this piece Hanks has a bad angel who appears and tells him to do the savage, cowardly thing. Occasionally he hears a good angelic voice speak out to him. In this moment the good voice tells him not to kill the savage. He kills the savage anyways.

Now I'm interested. A group of savages come back and notice their missing brother. Hanks again can't kill them all, so he runs. They give chase. Hanks makes it back to the spot where his brother-in-law was killed. I wondered, are the filmmakers actually going to kill him as punishment for his cowardice? Will he somehow overcome the savages by becoming as savage as they are? Will these savages spare him, throwing doubt and uncertainty on the roles he had assigned both them and himself?

Nope. Halle Berry shows up with a laser gun and kills them all. Then he, Berry and the niece go off to meet the nice space people because they are the winners and the good guys and the nasty, face-painted people were evil and gross and deserved death. They'd have worn black hats if they wore hats. Oh, wait, the evil angel that taunts Hanks and has a painted face similar to the savages actually DOES wear a black hat. Well, I guess that's wrapped up all tidy then. PHILOSOPHY!

The one solid section of the piece is, quite tellingly, also the funniest. "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" has Jim Broadbent playing the titular Timothy, a sad-sack failed literary agent who comes into serious dough when a client of his, a street tough-turned writer, throws a critic off a high balcony to his death, sending sales skyrocketing. The tough goes to jail, Cavendish makes some serious cash and all is well until the tough's relatives come looking for what they see as their share. When Cavendish discovers he has nowhere near the money these ruffians want, he runs away to his more successful brother, who sends him to what he thinks is a hotel, but is actually a sanitarium.

As opposed to the Hanks character, Cavendish is an out-and-out coward, hiding a secret yet trivial affair with his brother's wife, running from the thugs and, most importantly, abandoning the love of his life at a young age when her parents offered resistance. He is also a scheister who is making hefty profits off of a man's horrific demise.

He is, in essence, an interesting and flawed character. Consequently, when he does do something heroic later in the movie, it means something. It's a real turning point for the character. It works.

There are parts of the Cavendish segment that don't work, or collapse under the weight of too much (which is to say, practically any) thought, but it's easy to forgive because it's a fun, silly segment and they're not asking us to consider these things. Not so in the other sections, where this kind of thoughtlessness can be deadly. Let's do a compare and contrast involving the police, or lack thereof.

In the Cavendish segment, when the ruffians come to harass Broadbent, they tell him not to go to the police because it would be useless since the police couldn't do anything to save the critic their bro murdered. Well, sure, but that falls apart pretty quickly when you think for two seconds about the extraordinarily different scenarios of a man deciding in an impromptu moment to throw another man off a balcony versus a group of known thugs whose associate recently murdered a man with little provocation making explicit threats and extortions on a 24 hour timetable. I don't know precisely how much the police could do, but I'd say it'd be worth giving them a call. They could certainly do more than they did for the critic, simply given the nature of time (something this movie has invested heavily in).

But no matter. The piece is fun and not calling the cops moves Cavendish to the sanitarium quicker and la di da. Now let's look at the section entitled "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery."

In this story Halle Berry plays a sassy female reporter in the 70s, which means you get a lot of real heavy-handed references to pot, 70s rock, nuclear energy, the Feminist movement, the Sexual Revolution and anything else that is Seventies with a capital S. She's investigating an energy scandal that puts her in the sites of a professional hitman. This leads to what must certainly rank as one of the worst plans in all of cinema history. 

Keith David, who works for the energy concern that's put the hit out on Halle Berry but who isn't one of the bad guys, probably because he's ethnic (more on that later), comes to save Halle Berry from this hitman who has managed to successfully eliminate a number of people through some pretty explicit and brutal means. No quiet poisons or fake accidents for this guy. We're talking bullets to the head, bombs on planes kind of stuff. So Keith David's plan is to...let Halle Berry walk down the street where they know the hit is going to happen and Keith David's going to...ram into the guy's car. That's it. A professional killer, an expert marksman and one would have to think probably a pretty skilled evasive driver, and your plan is to put Halle Berry in the middle of broad daylight and hope that you sideswipe the guy well enough to...kill him? Make him reconsider his ways? David's maneuver goes off in a way where we're supposed to think something went awry and the tension is supposed to ramp up, but honestly, what results were they hoping for? It seems to me this was absolutely the best result they could have reasonably expected.

Outside of, you know, going to the police with a metric crap ton of evidence. There is always that option. When a character like Cavendish makes this kind of error in the kind of story he tells, it's all part of the whimsy and the fun. He's a magoo! Of course he'd do something like that. But when you're telling a story about the serious corrupting dangers of corporate power turning men against men, it's...well, it's a bit silly, is what it is.

Even their visual motifs work better in comedy. Take, for instance, the gimmick where different heroes in each timeline have this comet birthmark. It's treated as a big revelation each time, but, honestly, what does it mean? At best it's an inane and simplistic visual representation of the whole "we are all connected" cheesy philosophy. At worst it points to a somewhat fatalistic determinism, a sort of reverse mark of Cain. The good are marked from birth to be the harbingers of the best of humanity, others are doomed, markless, to be painted cannibals, slave traders or, worst of all, businessmen.

You know where a similar premise worked to greater effect, both for entertainment AND philosophical examination? The Coen's film "Raising Arizona." In the climactic fight of the film, Nicholas Cage's H.I. McDunnough is grappling with Randall Cobb's Leonard Smalls. Throughout the movie the Coens have been toying with the idea of what makes up an outlaw, and nowhere is there examination clearer than in Cage's skinny, hapless, loving and lovable H.I., a criminal, being beaten and abused by the grotesque, hate-filled "warthog from Hell" Leonard, a man ostensibly on the right side of justice and the law. At the fight's madcap apex, H.I. and Leonard make the startling discovery that they both share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo. The possibilities of this connection are myriad and intriguing, and it's also a pretty funny gag.

If your point is to show how we are all connected, I think showing some of the strangeness and the absurdity of those connections would be part of that truth, but sadly this whole birthmark business is treated very seriously in "Cloud Atlas." So much so that one reveal of the birthmark is treated like an astounding moment, which I suppose it is as the person with the birthmark is someone who wasn't, technically, born, which brings up a number of questions, none of which really matter.

What's important, though, is that identity is fluid and that we're all connected, right? I mean, that's why they did all that crazy race and gender casting, right? Because it doesn't really matter what your skin type is or what bits you have, we all have the potential to be absolutely anything!

Except a bad guy, of course. If you're a bad guy, you MUST be a white male.

One of the many things that's irritated me about the Wachowskis is their predilection towards the noble savage/magical negro trope. It plays throughout much of their work, but nowhere moreso than in "Cloud Atlas." In a movie that hits so hard on identity politics it really doubles down on the heroic, selfless, wise minority versus the cruel, oppressive, idiotic White Devil that even when the bad guys in the film must, by necessity, NOT be white men, as with the villainous Nurse Ratched character in the Cavendish section or the emotionless Korean government stooges in the Neo Seoul section, they're still ALWAYS played by white male actors. And with so much race and gender switching going on, they even had the opportunity to dress up one of their Asian, black or female actors to play one of the many villains. Nope. Always white. Always male.

This shows a sincere lack of conviction in their thesis, and exposes the film to be not a philosophical or intellectual examination on the essence of humanity, but a shallow, pandering feint towards multi-cultural "hipness" crossed with a healthy dosing of white liberal guilt.

Which is a shame, because here and there the Wachowskis (and Tom Tykwer, who I've pretty much treated as a tourist here but should probably assign some amount of responsibility to as well) create some fun, diverting scenes, characters and images.

It's also a shame that apparently their next film will have them returning to the Matrix universe again, the last time the world bought into their intellectual shell game, and not doing something more along the lines of Speed Racer, where their kinetic flare and imagination found its most comfortable home yet.

But that's just my opinion, and alas, I am a privileged white male with nary a comet birthmark in sight, so I'm probably horribly, horribly wrong.