Cloud Atlas, the new Halle-Berry-with-a-Lifesaver-implant epic, is set to be this weekend’s hot ticket. It deserves some of its advance press, if for no other reason than that it’s a $100 million adaptation of David Mitchell’s Booker-shortlisted novel, and I loved that book, and yes, please, more literary novels made bestsellers by film people. I co-sign.
It’s a shame, though, that it has resulted in just another bloated mess of an “ambitious” movie, one that straggles along for two hours and then tried to make up for lost time with an assault of maudlin platitudes in the third act in hopes of “moving” us. I’ve been silently paging through the reviews this week, waiting to see whether this would be a Michelle Dean, Lone Ranger sort of issue. Not so; many agree with me. But I was waiting for the kind of review Roger Ebert, of all people, wrote to unleash the rant building inside of me. Now I respect Ebert, but this:
Anywhere you go where movie people gather, it will be discussed. Deep theories will be proposed. Someone will say, “I don’t know what in the hell I saw.” The names of Freud and Jung will come up. And now you expect me to unwrap the mystery from the enigma and present you with a nice shiny riddle
Well, no. Just, no. No enigma here, no heavy lifting required, I do not need you to elaborate on your undergraduate thesis. I need you to see that this is an excessively simple movie to understand. And this is what got me so riled up, I think: that Cloud Atlas was poised to be the kind of movie I’d spend the rest of my life being told, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is a “deep” movie. Sort of like another movie whose depth was always never clear to me: The Matrix.
The presumption of deep thought where none can be found is not harmless. In an example that’s instructive of the whole, I will not be the last person to tell you that the racial politics of this film are particularly out of whack. Perhaps a better term here is “post-racial” politics, and I’ll hope you know that’s an insult. But I don’t know how to do anything but mock this film’s treatment of race. This is a film made by directors who plunked a brow borrowed from the Planet of the Apes backlot on poor innocent Jim Sturgess, and thought it would read to an audience as obviously Korean. And ones for whom a Chinese actress only half-disguised as a Hispanic woman can pull off castigating an enemy for calling her a “wetback.”
What these people—that would be Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, who direct three of the movie’s plots each—are trying to say is obvious: we are all one, we are the same, there’s no need to see color, the human experience is universal. There’s probably an interesting, if terribly speculative, essay to be written connecting that to Lana’s status as a trans woman. But I would urge caution with that thesis, because the old saw about how we’re all the same gets trotted out every time this country has a discussion about race, and by plenty of people who haven’t had Lana’s specific experience. There’s something else going on here, and it isn’t good.