It is my firm believe that ambition should never be the source of ridicule. A reach exceeding its grasp should never be brought to the kind of scorn that could disuade future artists or achievers of all stripes from attempting similarly audacious feats. We live in a world of safe bets and middling accomplishments, and the impulse to work in the unforgiving outlands of human creation should be lauded for its sheer bravery.
That said, one cannot allow one’s admiration for the intent to obscure their judgment of the product as a whole. In your case, Cloud Atlas, I can’t help but see all of your cracks and flaws and galling strokes of self-importance glimmering through the veneer of your ambition, like a thousand candles throwing their light through a single piece of rough-spun silk hung too close to their flames. No matter the beauty and intent of the covering, the force of those missteps overcomes and consumes the facade, bringing it all to ashes.
The erosion of your foundations begins in the very make up of your story. You follow the threads of six different plots, spread throughout time both in our past and future. Each plot involves a number of characters, played by the same actors to literalize the philosophical idea of a soul in transit. This narrative trick serves the purpose of enhancing your themes and ideas, but also creates a cognitive disconnect that is difficult to overcome given the inability of these plots to cohere into some sense of a continuing continuity. Using the same actors to convey the transference of souls throughout time is something that conceptually works well, but suffers if these stories and timeframes do not feel as though they inhabit the same universe. That the make up effects are laughably bad does not help in any way, either.
The tone of each segment differs wildly from each other segment within the whole of your film. The zany comedy of the present story – following a publisher wrongly imprisoned in a retirement home – clashes violently with the distopian ‘horror’ of the future segments, while also undercutting the austere stateliness of the two most past stories. Meanwhile, a story set in the 1970s burrows down into the kind of period-piece paranoia that comes off more as rote parody than adapted tone. Mingling these parts together in a mishmash of loosely connected narrative seams is discordant and sloppy, creating not a beautiful tapestry enveloping a lovely muse so much as a series of tattered cloths thrown over a rotting corpse of a thesis.
What is this thesis to which I have now so obliquely referred? What deep and world-changing idea could justify the use of such an ambitious and complicated narrative form, as though it were the sole means of truly communicating it?
Our actions have consequences which we cannot foresee, and carry on through time affecting the world long after we have left. In general, everything is connected.
If this concept – so basic, elementary, and wonderfully trite – seems like a letdown following my ornate build up, imagine my crestfallen reaction when this was all I was left with following a three hour stew of nonsensical action, ornate and clumsy romanticism, and brutally delivered punchlines to unnecessarily complex movements of human interaction. Are the creators of your tale – Andy and Lana Wachowski alongside Tom Tykwer – so arrogant as to believe that this is a theme that we unwashed plebes might never have thought of? Is their intellectual contempt for humanity at large so blinding that they think that those of us who deigned to buy tickets to this film need such a rudimentary and painfully obvious delivery of a first-year philosophy lesson?
Moments of subtlety – few and far between though they may be – are undercut through constant underlining both in editing and camera work, then further highlighted by dialogue. Maybe I occupy some kind of unconsidered middle ground in the possible audience for your tale; neither ignorant or simple enough to be dazzled and awed by the elementary-school level message of your story, nor intellectually insecure enough to feel the need to champion you so people won’t think me a philistine. I have seen movies that tread similar ground with more depth and a narrower focus, that traverse time and consciousness with equal alacrity but greater grace.
The Tree of Life grappled not just with the way past events affect our current lives, and the way by which the smallest moments in the past echo forward and inform our current world, but with the very nature of God itself. It did this with a unity of vision and a clarity of purpose that is enviable, but also had the intelligence and fortitude to admit that the mystery itself was the answer to the question.
The Fountain is more of a parallel to your own tale, featuring a man traveling through time in order to find the way to allow his love to live forever. There are stories told in different times of human experience that tie into one another not only visually – with masterful editing and visual poetry – but also thematically and tonally. It builds to an audacious and frightening climax that treads the line into the absurd, but never allows itself to lose the root emotions we have bonded to a single character.
By creating so many timelines, so many characters, and touching on them with only the most basic amount of surface detail, you, Cloud Atlas, create a void into which we can project our own thoughts and feelings, but only if we care enough to attempt to find those meanings. I never found myself wanting to know more, never wanting to speculate further than the screen. I could, I have, and I will in the future, but none of these speculations could ever allow me to find in you the same meaning and depth that I found in those aforementioned films.
Is it possible for people to enjoy you earnestly, with every atom of their being, without falling victim to either the labels of ignorance or insecurity? Certainly. I would never believe myself omniscient enough to tell people that their opinions, which they feel so honestly and sincerely, are wrong. Some people believe that they are incomplete unless they lose a limb. Some people find spiritual enlightenment by being hung from hooks in their skin. As a species, man has as many singular experiences and moments of fulfillment as there are moments in the day multiplied by minds at work. I can only speak to my own experiences, and hope that they reflect the sensibilities or predict the tastes of those who find themselves similarly prepossessed.
It was my presumption at the outset of our time together that I would not like you, but I was aware of my ability to be surprised by a film. The best films often suffer in their marketing – they transcend any manner of simple explanation. I held, in the pit of my heart, some small seed of hope that you might become more than what glimpses I had been shown. It was with mounting dread that I realized that you made your most profound point in your trailer, and that the other two hours and forty minutes of your run time were devoted solely to expounding upon that thesis in ways both banal and ludicrous.
Ambition should never be punished, but it should always be tempered with craft, self-awareness, and humilty. You lack any of those three elements, which might have allowed you to be more than the elongated, self-important, roughly hewn mess which you currently are.
May we never meet again, in any life,
Brian J. Roan