A couple months ago, the Filmspotting SVU podcast discussed what’s known as Hyperlink Cinema, those movies that are comprised of multiple, seemingly independent but actually interconnected narratives, and co-host Matt Singer came up with a test: “Would these stories hold up on their own without each other? If we pulled one story out and made it a short film, would that short film be worth watching on its own?” That’s an interesting criteria for these movies, as so much of what makes them interesting is not the story itself, but the structure. These movies are screenwriters’ dreams, lots of opportunity for playing with time and locations and themes, and devising a way to make it all a big puzzle that unravels itself as the movie plays out. What Singer is getting at with his test is that many of these films sacrifice character or drama in order to make the structure work…
So how does Cloud Atlas, the new film from the Wachowski siblings (is that what we’re supposed to call them now?) and Tom Tykwer, hold up against that test? I’d say it doesn’t hold up that well, but there’s enough going on in this movie that I think it remains worthwhile, and given that the theme of the movie is essentially that everything is connected, it makes sense for the movie to be a slave to its structure. Based on a sprawling, ambitious novel by David Mitchell, the movie tells six different tales, ranging from the distant past to the distant future, with the same actors playing roles in each timeline. There’s some notion of reincarnation or distant relationship between each actor/character and each timeline, and each story is connected to each other in some way or another.
Unfortunately, all of the stories are trite and clichéd. Some work better than others, but I get the impression that they’re almost parodies of their respective genres. The movie is certainly self-aware enough that it might try for that sort of thing, and not having read the book, I can’t say whether or not that was an intention, but in practice, it doesn’t quite congeal the way I think they hoped it would. That being said, none of the stories are boring, and the real triumph of this movie is one of editing. The transitions between each story are relatively seamless, with visual motifs used to great effect while still quickly and effectively establishing which story you’re in. While I was puzzling out how each story related to the other (which is part of the fun of hyperlink cinema), I was never confused as to what story I was watching or what was going on. The Wachowskis and Tykwer make this look easy, but I’m of the opinion that this sort of thing is much harder than it looks, and I was really surprised at how well done that aspect was.
Of the six stories, the one I liked the most was set in a futuristic Korea, where a clone escapes servitude and becomes a sorta rebel. It had a very 70s science fiction sorta feel to it, complete with shocking Soylent Green style revelations. The ending of this segment left a little something to be desired, and there is some amazingly bad makeup in evidence here, but it was the most interesting of the six segments. I actually enjoyed all the other tales well enough, though again, there’s a lot of cliché to wade through, including some really on-the-nose type stuff (especially with the slavery segment).
While I don’t think any of these stories, if lifted from the movie and screened separately, would work by itself, each one of them has a hook that could lead to a great story or movie. The general ideas of each story are solid enough, it’s just perhaps the act of compression combined with the didacticism of the script that lets the movie down. I’d be really curious to see how well the book actually accomplishes this. I imagine a lot of subtleties of this story would be better suited to the written word than the screen.
For instance, this is a movie with a message, and boy do they really want you to know that. This is one of the more didactic movies I’ve seen this year, with characters constantly spouting the story’s themes in clumsy and awkward dialogue. The notion that everything is connected, that small actions have far-reaching consequences, that inaction is an action, these are all fascinating topics, but the movie clearly doesn’t trust the audience to make those connections and frequently lays them out in bald, explicit, literal speeches. This sort of thing tends to work better on the page than it does onscreen, and because I’m sure Mitchell was not constrained by things like length, he could perhaps have spread the themes out so they didn’t seem like a sledgehammer hitting your face.
In terms of performances, everything is mostly adequate, though I do think some of the makeup jobs were distracting and unnecessary (others were not nearly as bad, and some were very successful). From a technical perspective, everything works very well. Visually impressive, and for a movie this didactic, I thought a lot of the visual transitions between stories were exceptionally well done. Again, the editing is perfect, and the music is quite effective as well.
I’ve ultimately come away with a good feeling from this movie, but it’s also clearly got some big flaws that hold it back. I’m actually quite impressed with how well the stories were weaved together, and I found the movie entertaining and thought provoking, I just wish that the filmmakers trusted us viewers a little more.