Cloud Atlas entered theatres with a short lease on life. A near three-hour epic without a name like Spielberg to pry moviegoers from their schedules, released in the hush before Thanksgiving moneymakers forced it out of theatres, this optimistic sci-fi tale has a tragic real-life ending. Just a month after its release, it had started disappearing from most multiplexes in my area.
But the film leaves behind an important legacy about critical discourse in the age of Rotten Tomatoes and cyber-speed review consumption. Festival of Films has given you a taste of the film’s divisive reception: Ruth’s ambivalence measured by respect for the film’s ambition and Jeremy’s admiration of its scope and originality. On a macro level, the response spans both opinions plus some, from the hesitant to acerbic, with little ground for overlap.
Roger Ebert describes Cloud Atlas like a spiritual epiphany. “But, oh, what a film this is! And what a demonstration of the magical, dreamlike qualities of the cinema.” There is freedom in the movie’s straddling time and space, stripping away gender, race, age, the chains that bind people to a single identity, until everything is a fluid blur. Film Crit Hulk, one of the most respected Web critics, schtick and all, agrees. He adds that Cloud Atlas ignores weary cynicism and stands earnestly by its message, arguing just as David Foster Wallace did for a moral anchor in the sea of postmodern aporeia: “…CLOUD ATLAS IS AT ONCE HIGHLY STYLIZED GRANDEUR, BUT IT TRULY MANAGES TO FEED YOUR SOUL.”
But then Christopher Orr of The Atlantic also calls upon Wallace, this time to condemn Cloud Atlas. For him, the film dresses up like a meaningful masterpiece, without bothering to fill itself with the thought, care, and chain of reasoning that characterizes literature’s deepest thinkers. “The result is an eminently peculiar mismatch of substance and form, like a Hallmark card written by David Foster Wallace.” Accusations of pretension, ego, self-aggrandizement, and boorishness abound. And what of those who like the film for lack of substance? For coasting along on the flash and bang of glitzy SFX or prosthetics, as James Berardinelli and The East Bay Express’s Kelly Vance have said?
The acting is phenomenal and grotesque, the cosmetics revolutionary and atrocious; Cloud Atlas is a movie chock-full of ideas and no ideas at all. Arguments that agree on the film’s merit nevertheless cancel each other out by their reasoning. Not even the “Consensus” tagline under the Tomatometer can adequately summarize the difficulties of uniting the film’s vast, conflicted criticism.
It’s at this point that most critics, struggling to dispel the paradox, play the “love it/hate it” card and move on. I have always found this disingenuous; it just repeats the facts, as if that elucidates our problem. It fails to explain what specifically about Cloud Atlas fragments audiences and eludes concord. What filmic jamming device has us all frazzled?
We could argue all day about what a critic really does, but in short, I’d say a critic’s job is to search in art for the through-line, that key or theme that unifies the piece and makes its components resonate. It’s the answer to the question, “What does this film do, and does it work?” bringing together matters of acting, narrative, visuals and editing, although for some talents — Tarantino and his dialogue, Soderbergh and cinematography — one element will lead the rest.
Still, the through-line provides some objective measure of a film’s worth, while allowing for a variety of opinion, as critics and audiences use different starting points for their analyses. Perhaps they focus at the start on the film’s gorgeous cinematography. Maybe a line of dialogue puts them on a bad tack, or their personal history gives the film deeper significance.
Everybody analyzes films, technically; critics are just more attuned to the process by habit. But nobody — critics, laymen, filmmakers — could have been prepared by habit or anything else for the quandary behind Cloud Atlas.
The film has no clear through-line. It has a moral theme, sure, about the connectedness of humanity, the evils of slavery, and the need for compassion and empathy in the fight against prejudice… And yet, the film consists of much more. It contains an all-star cast, with actors playing multiple characters across six stories separated by era, genre, and tone — men playing women and Asians becoming Caucasians, transformations accomplished through prosthetics, costume, acting style and the expressiveness of the director’s hand, or rather, hands: those of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, each possessing distinct styles.
It weaves stories together like a symphony, the Cloud Atlas Sextet at the story’s heart, making statements as much with the bridge between shots as the content of each plot. It even seems to say something outside the constraints of the screen. What do we make of Larry Wachowski’s transition into Lana Wachowski, a gender swap discussed delicately by reviews without asking its significance? Certainly, the decisions to turn Susan Sarandon into a bearded man and Hugo Weaving into a buxom nurse gain new dimensions when compared with Lana’s sexual realignment.
Where does a critic start? And where will these threads lead him or her for two hours and fifty minutes? Cloud Atlas does not take viewers’ hands and guide them to an easy conclusion; it lets them decide what is most valuable in the film. For Roger Ebert, this is a liberating experience; for others, it bores them to tears, or they trip over one aspect — the unsubtle moralizing or Tom Hanks’s Scottish accent — and never recover. Each approach is the right one. Each foray into the world of Cloud Atlas opens new vistas that reflect the film as much as the person watching.
In that way, whether you loved it or hated it, Cloud Atlas held up a mirror to show you your process of absorbing film. Call it a lesson in opinion: how it’s formed; where it comes from, in you, in film; and why it’s half the experience of watching and appreciating cinema.