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.
You see, elementary logic has flown out the window. If you really think that all that matters is that we are all equal before the Matrix or God or Roquoq’u, whatever, why do you need so much makeup and cheap prosthetics to get this across? The really radical choice here would have been to simply cast the actors and be done with it, have them play roles as other races and genders without comment or plastic forcing the issue. It would challenge the audience of wondering if they really need all that artificial crap to make things “believable.” Even if people conclude that they do need such trappings to get to the “true-true” (oh God that is an actual phrase in this movie), wouldn’t it be great to get people to question that?
That’s not even to mention that cutting out the color-shifting would actually have liberated the casting department to cast more than two actresses of color (and one actor) in a sea of white people. This is not an affirmative action issue; this is calling on a film that is trying to say that race shouldn’t dictate emotional content to put its money where its mouth is. Sure, I know that stars were necessary to fund a film. But surely there are other actors they could have found here; Sturgess, or Jim Broadbent, were not cast for their investor-fortifying powers They were cast, no doubt, because someone felt they were right for the part. The presumedly white part. Did no one think this was a problem?
If you think the ranting about the casting is beside the point you’ve perhaps missed the triumphal narrative, building for months now, about Cloud Atlas’ grand “solutions” to the problem of adapting a structurally difficult, and dramatically subtle, book. But it’s no accident that the things about Cloud Atlas that are lovely and touching and clever, and are not Ben Whishaw’s performance (who is, as always, excellent in his role) are all from the book. The book is enormously moving, but it is also structurally cleaner, and subtler. That is because it is precise and careful in a way this movie never dreams of being; it understands that you don’t discard specifics to get to the universals, you burrow down into them.
Put differently: the Wachowskis, whose idea it was to adapt Cloud Atlas, have excellent taste. But the problem with subtlety in film is that the enormousness of a screen is its automatic enemy. Movies know, intuitively, how to be expansive and verbose and “ambitious,” where ambition is only a question of size. What they are less good at is asking, and answering, questions more difficult than whether we are all “connected,” and how we deal with that in a world where some many other things mitiate against that. These are not Cloud Atlas’s concerns, though. It’s too busy self-congratulating over the blunt and inelegant move of indicating commonality by way of birthmark on the characters. Gimmicks are gimmicks even when done in the service of art, I’m afraid; the threadbareness of the thought has a way of shining through.
In the egalitarian world of the fantasy, I suppose this wouldn’t bother me so much. In this one, where we live with a very real problem, where in fact people do suffer from certain structural disadvantages, and can’t be soothed only by “We Are the World”–ish daily affirmation. The Wachowskis have long had a quasi-political aspect to their work. They have some idea, it seems, of overcoming certain totalitarian forces in whatever culture they choose to treat: The Matrix, the corporatocracy of Speed Racer, even the Norsefire in V for Vendetta (which the Wachowskis produced, not directed). But when it comes to articulating their own views, they’re as vague and abstract as any dictator. They want you to ignore what’s plainly in front of you in favor of some campaign-button slogan about responsibility to others. And then they want you to think that the abstraction is indicative of superior intelligence. It’s infuriating.
After all, I don’t know if anyone brought this up to the directors, but it’s an awfully ironic thing to dump on the world one week before an election that could have catastrophic, not to mention devastatingly specific, consequences if it should go the wrong way. Platitudes about “a better America” should not, as a rule, triumph over reason and sense. But somehow they always do, don’t they, in the movies?