Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Eye Candy for the Brain

Cloud Atlas By David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas By David Mitchell (Photo credit: life serial)

In 1936, a young, gay composer named Robert Frobisher flees from his lover’s hotel room. Decades later, the haunting melody he composes finds its way into the world of a reporter investigating a nuclear power plant. Decades before, an ill young lawyer leaves behind a journal for Frobisher to find.

These are just a few of the connections between characters, times, and places that turn up in Cloud Atlas, a stunning visual feast which spans the distant past, the present, and the far future. It features stalwart actors such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant in multiple roles, heavily made up in some cases and crossing ethnic and gender barriers.  The actors are ably supported by computer-generated locations so imaginative they make the heart skip a few beats.

Yet for all its technical wizardry and narrative cleverness, Cloud Atlas never quite rises to the heights it could have achieved.  

 After nearly three hours of jumping back and forth between multiple narratives, the story falls short of saying anything new or offering new ideas. 

The movie’s central theme—that people are all connected and that our lives are not our own—is repeated ad nauseum like a liturgy to the faithful. If you accept this philosophy as true, here it is again to reinforce your belief. If you do not accept it, Cloud Atlas offers no compelling argument.

What we are left with instead is the cinematic equivalent of Trivial Pursuit. Just as players of the venerable board game move forward by correctly answering questions of a, well, trivial nature, so does Cloud Atlas connect its narratives in trivial ways. So what if Frobisher reads the lawyer’s incomplete narrative? So what if Frobisher’s composition turns up in a record store decades after his death? 

Some of the narratives, granted, are fun to watch—particularly an unscrupulous book publisher’s harrowing attempts to escape from a nursing home—and others explore the choices people make between cowardice and bravery.  Religion, consumerism, and corruption turn up as recurring themes.

But, in the end, the story telling and connections reminded me of classic Marvel and DC comics.   

Characters from one series would pop up unexpectedly in another. A weapon abandoned by one villain would be discovered issues later by another. A storyline from one book would lead to a new plotline in another.

And while such connections can be fun to piece together, Cloud Atlas sadly leaves little to the imagination. Everything is spelled out for us, leaving nothing for the reader to do but marvel at the technical and narrative gymnastics. (Hint for writers:  If you’re trying to impress the audience with how clever you are, you’re going about it wrong.) I felt I was watching a story, not participating in it.

The difference between watching a story and participating in one can be summed up by audience reactions to Cloud Atlas and Marvel's The Avengers, released last summer. When Avengers ended, the audience applauded. When Cloud Atlas ended, people filed somberly out of the theater. A funeral would have been more engaging.

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