Sunday, December 23, 2012

2012 Catch-Up: Cloud Atlas (A)

One of the most unique blockbusters in recent memory, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski Sibling's 172-minute magnum opus was released on October 26 to shockingly little fanfare from both casual moviegoers and critics. With a worldwide gross of $65 million contrasted against its overwhelming $135 million budget, and a respectable, yet disappointing Rotten Tomatoes score of 63%, calling Cloud Atlas a financial and critical flop would seem justified. However, in retrospect, this failure is slightly baffling. Tykwer and the Wachowski's had one of the most unanimously beloved actors of our time (Tom Hanks) as part of their ensemble cast, used an ambitious premise unlike anything previously shown on screen, and utilized the crowd-drawing presence of impressive special effects. Also working in their favor was a major studio buying the domestic distribution rights for their German outsourced feature, and choosing to release it in premium priced IMAX theaters. On top of this, there was no competition at the box office. All major movies were petering out before the release of Wreck-It Ralph and Flight on the next weekend, and there wasn't any reason for Cloud Atlas not to take first place in its first weekend. While there wasn't any possibility for it to recoup its massive budget, winning the box office crown as a modest dud was a realistic conclusion.

Then, it bombed.

The once frontrunner for several prominent awards and financial competence immediately burst into flames upon entering theaters; ruining all chances of a mildly successful gross. Audiences rejected the film's epic nature like white blood cells react to the common cold, and it was ejected from cinemas without giving the common decency to allow people to acknowledge its very existence. Labeled John Carter Part Deux and quickly forgotten, Cloud Atlas even failed to make an appearance on the Oscar shortlist for makeup; a category which was widely considered to be its one chance of winning a statuette. Though nominations for special effects and score may come to pass, a win seems impossible in such crowded categories. In most cases I wouldn't react too emotionally to an award snub such as this, but it's extremely disappointing to discover that almost no recognition is being given at all. Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious films ever made, and is one of my favorite of the year.

Tykwer and the Wachowski's have constructed a masterful collage of various genres, stories, characters, themes, and settings with their collaboration. Rather than use traditional narrative, the film consists of six loosely connected vignettes; each one with a different setting and genre. A costume drama set on an 1849 ocean voyage across the Pacific, a low-key love story about a bisexual composer being blackmailed by his older mentor set in 1936 Scotland, a stylized thriller involving corrupt gasoline companies and the one reporter who can expose their treachery in 1973 San Francisco, a caper-comedy set in an oppressive retirement home from present day England, a dystopian sci-fi adventure taking place in 2144 South Korea, and a post-apocalyptic epic at an unmentioned point in the future. The stories taking place in 1849, 2144, and the unnamed future are directed by the Wachowskis, while Tykwer took on all in between.

What keeps each short connected to the others, and allows the film to function as a cohesive whole, is that the cast remains identical throughout every vignette. This shows the audience that the people in the film aren't necessarily the main characters who we watch develop, but rather their immortal souls. For example, the first character we watch Tom Hanks play is a cowardly thief; slowly poisoning a member of his crew without aggressively doing anything drastic to end this person's life. As the years pass on, his soul becomes braver. In 1973, he goes against his corrupt employer to protect innocents in danger, and during the present day, his reckless bravery leads him to throw someone who offended him off a building. Later on, in the post-apocalyptic future, he defeats a clan of barbaric cannibals and overcomes the devil personified. The protagonist of the film isn't Tom Hanks as one of the people he portrays, but rather his soul; an otherworldly presence unable to visualize on screen. The entire ensemble is invisible, and the actors are just embodying the hosts over an extended period of time.

While these vast ambitions warrant the feature at least some recognition when standing alone, the most amazing feat of all is that all three directors have created a final product which stands par with their premise. It's the best edited movie I've seen in a long time; seamlessly shifting between the separate stories effortlessly, while still remaining entertaining and devoid of extreme pretension. It's 172-runtime passes by almost comically fast, making it one of the few nearly three hour movies which don't warrant excessive watch looking. Even for the casual moviegoer stumbling into the DVD rental through seeing A-list actors on the cover, this is an entertaining and engrossing experience unlike any other.

Another aspect which serves as a driving force for the film would be the dazzling cinematography by Frank Griebe and John Toll.
Cloud Atlas serves just as much as a factory for awe inducing moments as it does for a feature film. 2144 South Korea serves as a unique dystopian landscape, with the brief scenes within the Patasong fast food joint (where the protagonist of this segment is employed by force) containing some of the most memorable imagery of the year. Also included in the memorable imagery are the shots of Hugh Grant as Kona Chief; a brutalic and cannibalistic warlord in the post-apocalypse. Covered in red, white, and black warpaint from head to toe, it would be extremely easy to make this figure of barbaric anarchy seem like a silly Halloween costume with generally likable Hugh Grant playing the character. However, due to Griebe and Toll, not only does Grant appear to be a reasonable figure to exist within the segment, but also terrifying beyond belief. While credit should undoubtably be given to Grant for his excellent performance, it's because of the cinematographers that he can be taken seriously.

Returning to the mention of the warpaint featured in the previous paragraph, the makeup and practical effects designed by Heike Merker and her crew are astonishing beyond belief. Unbound by their own race and gender, the actors are cast into an eclectic set of roles without any limitations. Asian actor Doona Bae is able to convincingly portray a 1800s European housewife without any suspension of disbelief from the audience, Hugo Weaving can transform into a female Nurse Ratchet-like proprietor of a retirement home. The makeup also allows the actors to smoothly shift into roles beyond their age, most notably in Jim Broadbent's role in 1936 as a senile composer. For this particular character, the aging makeup not only allows Broadbent to have an appearance to match the character description, but gives added depth to the composer as well. As someone who never necessarily paid excessive attention to makeup and practical effects within films, this is an eyeopening detail which greatly benefits the film surrounding it.

Though there are admittedly some flaws (some of the child acting is noticeably flat),
Cloud Atlas is the unspoken blockbuster of 2012. With an ambitious premise unlike anything else put to screen, and directors able to match their promise of grandiose spectacle with some of the most visually stunning imagery in recent memory, Cloud Atlas deserves to be known as something other than a box office disaster. It's one of my favorite films of the year, and will hopefully find an audience upon its inevitable release on DVD.

Grade: A

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