Cloud Atlas: Crazy, Brilliant, Or Both? A Grierson & Leitch DiscussionS

Occasionally, one of Grierson & Leitch will disagree strongly enough with the other that a discussion is in order. Last time this happened was Compliance, which Grierson loved and Leitch didn't. (That one was a huge pageview hit because it had the word "blowjobs" in the headline.) This week, Grierson took issue with Leitch's review of Cloud Atlas, which Grierson kinda loved. A discussion ensued.

Grierson

Read your Cloud Atlas review, Will. I understand your complaints and agree with some of them—the 19th century segment is easily the film's weak link—but I found myself pretty wowed by the movie anyway. Like you, I'm not a big fan of ensemble, "everything is, like, connected, man" movies, but to my mind Cloud Atlas trumps Crash, Babel, and the like because of how giddy and unbridled it is in its ambition and scope. Where other movies of this kind would ponderously cart out each dramatic irony or narrative echo with the seriousness of a sermon, Cloud Atlas is actually pretty light on its feet. There's no question the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer are deeply invested in the notion that our lives are intertwined in mysterious, cosmic ways, but they approach that idea utilizing a breezy pop vernacular. Like The Matrix and Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas takes Weighty Themes and gives them a crowd-pleasing spin.

That's why the movie's mix of genres is so lively and, at the same time, profound in a playful way. To the filmmakers' way of thinking, a 19th-century notary, a 20th-century journalist and a daffy 21st-century book editor are living existences just as meaningful as a primitive tribesman's in the distant future or a lowly English musician's in the 1930s. Likewise, a sci-fi story, a wacky comedy, a romantic drama, and a conspiracy thriller are all equally valid ways of telling a story, so each gets its place. When you get right down to it, Cloud Atlas is very much about the act of storytelling itself, and while not all the segments work, not one of them plays out in a predictable way—they bounce around with a sense of limitless possibility, as if their tellers are making them up as they go along. Granted, that sensation isn't always welcome—I have no idea what Tom-Hanks-as-psychotic-British-writer is doing in that 21st-century story—but there are enough satisfying and/or gripping and/or touching and/or exciting moments happening throughout that I was willing to forgive those that were a little flat. (For the record, the Wachowskis handled the two futuristic segments and the 19th-century story, while Tykwer helmed the 1930s, '70s, and present-day segments.) In that spirit, I found the more questionable choices—like having Halle Berry in whiteface or Hugo Weaving made up as a woman—kind of a hoot. You complain that the movie "veers most dangerously toward camp" at these moments, but I think that's just one more tone in the film, another color on the filmmakers' palette. For all of its supposed seriousness, Cloud Atlas is actually pretty damn fun.

Leitch

Yeah, I'll confess, I do appreciate that the movie isn't weighted down with the portent—or, worse, the "look at me!" self indulgence—of Babel ... but just because it's light on its feet doesn't mean it has anything to say. I'm sure all these connections make sense in the book, but in the movie, honestly, it's like coming late to an in-depth conversation other people have been having. The filmmakers feel like fans too close to the material to have any sort of sense of what should pop and what shouldn't. Why do they bother with the re-casting of actors over and over? Does the movie lose anything at all if they just cast different actors for every role? With the possible exception of Hanks, Berry and Whishaw (and I'm being nice, really), I'd say no. I'm sure there's a complicated explanation as to why it all makes sense. I"m just saying the movie doesn't provide a convincing one.

The major question of all this remains: If you made full movies about each of these stories, on their own, would they hold up? I would argue that the composer one would hold, and MAYBE the Hanks-helping-Berry-in-a-post-apocalyptic-future one would. And that's mostly because of an affecting Hanks performance. (I still have no idea what the evil Leprechaun Lincoln was about.) Otherwise, this is thin gruel, spackled together to give the illusion of permanence and connection. Believe you me, it brings me no joy that Cloud Atlas leaves me so cold. I admire that this movie exists. But that doesn't mean it works.

Grierson

Like you, I haven't read the book, but I liked how the film cuts back and forth between its time periods, as opposed to the novel, which tells the first half of each story separately before concluding each story separately. Though Cloud Atlas is nowhere close in terms of accomplishment, it did remind me why I love Robert Altman's multi-character films like Nashville and Short Cuts: The movie gets its strength from the juxtaposition of its very different individuals who just so happen to be occupying the same space. Like with Altman's movies, Cloud Atlas occasionally allows for narrative rhyming and coincidences, but, really, the film is less about how we're all connected than it is about the eternal struggle for the individual to make a difference in an uncaring society. Each story, no matter what time period, is focused on that fact, whether it's the 21st-century editor's silly scheming to escape the nursing home or the clone Sonmi-451's tense battle against a futuristic tyrannical government. After The Matrix, it's pretty clear the Wachowskis dig "fight the system" storylines, but they've never figured out a way to make it as moving as they do here. (The ending is probably too hokey, but I have to admit it got to me.)

I recognize that the movie is uneven, and I agree that the decision to cast the same actors in different roles is more trouble than its worth. (Seriously, why is Susan Sarandon wasting her time in this?) But other than the 19th-century storyline, none of the segments bored me. And I think it's a little unfair to ask how each story would hold up as its own movie. At least as they're presented in the film, they're more like short stories or novellas—they're not meant to individually carry the full weight of Cloud Atlas.

Oh, and don't ask me to defend Leprechaun Lincoln. Such a thing isn't possible.

Leitch

I'm just not sure the Wachowskis and Twyker quite have the internal governor to keep themselves from letting their stories get away from them. There are parts of the '70s story I really liked—it gets the paranoid thriller tone right, if not necessarily the intensity—but then it devolves into a boring chase scene and, frankly, an embarrassingly stupid "comic" payoff. I know you're not really comparing this to Altman films, but you're still way too loose to even bring up his name: Those movies were free-flowing but disciplined. Cloud Atlas has a sensibility that's almost infantile. (Altman was incapable of producing corn.) There's no larger maturity to the work and while it can be exhilarating to watch a movie that's willing to jump from one crazy place to another, here it feels less like an unleashed talent running free and more like an ADD-addled kid just hopping all over the place. I admire that they changed the structure of the book to cut back and forth between stories, but I'm not sure they thought it through enough. They just sort of run, screaming and giggling, from room to room. This can have its moments. But on the whole, I don't trust that the movie knows what it's doing, or is willing to slow down enough to figure it out.

I will say, though: As dumb as it is, I sort of loved the short bit with Hanks as the mad British author. It makes no sense, but I always enjoy Hanks when he's trying to have fun and do something different. Hopefully this will mean no more Larry Crowne.

Grierson

One other thing I wanted to mention from your review: I admit that a few of the effects shots are a little chintzy—there's one green-screen scene in the 1970s section that's so bad I wondered if it was supposed to be an homage to F/X from that period—but on the whole, I think this is a pretty dazzling-looking movie. If the stories didn't work for you, I can imagine this won't make much of a difference, but Cloud Atlas is quite often simply stunning as a piece of visual storytelling. The futuristic Nea So Copros section is particularly well-designed—it takes the typical Blade Runner/dystopian template and builds on it—but every segment is filled with its share of terrific shots and scenes. (You may find the stories uneven, but the movie doesn't feel slapped-together or incoherent. It has a real sense of style, even if, yes, some of the jokes don't work.) You mentioned that "Even at $100 million, you can see some cut corners." The fact that this movie looks as amazing as it does and only cost $100 million, well, I think that's pretty exceptional.

I wasn't expecting to change your mind with our little back-and-forth, and like I said, I get where you're coming from. But Cloud Atlas is one of those rare movies whose inconsistencies didn't bother me that badly because its confident audacity smooths over most of those problems. A few iffy effects shots, silly wigs, and some awkward stabs at comedy don't derail a movie that's this brazenly alive and free. It's easy to let its flaws get to you, but I think it's far more rewarding if you accept them as part of the rich tapestry of this whole crazy endeavor. I'm glad I did.

Leitch

This has gone long enough, so I'll just finish with this: It's hard to completely hate a movie that decided to dress up Hugh Grant like this. Look out! Hugh Grant's got a knife!

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.