Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The glorious fiasco of Cloud Atlas

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A few months ago, I wrote a piece for Salon on whether there was such a thing as a New Yorker feature curse. I was largely inspired by the example of John Carter, in which the magazine’s highly positive profile of director Andrew Stanton was followed shortly thereafter by a debacle that deserves its own book, like Final Cut or The Devil’s Candy, to unpack in all its negative glory. Judging from the response, a lot of readers misunderstood the piece, with one commenter sniffing that I should read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World before spreading so much superstition. My point, to the extent I had one, was that the New Yorker curse, like its counterpart at Sports Illustrated, was likely a case of regression to the mean: magazines like this have only a limited amount of feature space to devote to the movies, which means they tend to pick artists who have just had an outstanding outlier of a success—which often means that a correction is on the way. And although my theory has been badly tested by Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, which is now the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, at first glance, the recent failure of Cloud Atlas, which follows a fascinating profile of the Wachowskis by Aleksandar Hemon, seems to indicate that the curse is alive and well.

Yet at the risk of sounding exactly as arbitrary as my critics have accused me of being, I can’t quite bring myself to lump it into the same category. This isn’t a movie like John Carter, which was undermined by a fundamentally flawed conception and a lot of tactical mistakes along the way. Cloud Atlas has its problems, but as directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer after the novel by David Mitchell, it’s a real movie, an ambitious, entertaining, often technically spellbinding film that probably never had a shot at finding a large popular audience. I’m not a huge fan of the Wachkowskis, who over the past decade have often seemed more intelligent in their interviews than in their movies, but I give them and Tykwer full credit for pursuing this dazzling folly to its very end. Cloud Atlas is like The Tree of Life made in a jazzy, sentimental, fanboyish state of mind, and although it doesn’t succeed entirely, under the circumstances, it comes closer than I ever expected. It’s the kind of weird, personal, expensive project that gives fiascos a good name, and it’s one of the few movies released this year that I expect to watch again.

And with one exception, which I’ll mention in a moment, the movie’s flaws are inseparable from its fidelity to the underlying material. I liked Mitchell’s novel a lot, and as with the movie it inspired, it’s hard not to be impressed by the author’s talents and ambition. That said, not all of its nested novelettes are equally interesting, and its structure insists on a deeper network of resonance that isn’t always there. Some of its connections—the idea that Somni-451 would become a messianic figure for the world after the fall, for instance, or that she’d want to spend her last few moments in life catching up with the story of Timothy Cavendish—don’t quite hold water, and in general, its attempts to link the stories together symbolically, as with the comet-shaped birthmark that its primary characters share, are too facile to be worthy of Mitchell’s huge authorial intelligence. (You only need to compare Cloud Atlas to a book like Dictionary of the Khazars, which does keep the promises its structure implies, to see how the former novel falls short of the mark.) And the movie suffers from the same tendency to inform us that everything here is connected, when really, they’re simply juxtaposed in the editing room.

All the same, the movie, like the book, is one that demands to be experienced. There are a few serious lapses, most unforgivably at the end, in which we’re given a new piece of information about the frame story—not present in the original novel—in the clumsiest way imaginable. For the most part, however, it’s fun to watch, and occasionally a blast. Somewhat to my surprise, my favorite sequences were the ones directed by Tykwer, an unreliable director who also offered up one of the best action scenes in recent years with the Guggenheim shootout in The International: he gives the Louisa Rey narrative a nice ’70s conspiracy feel, and the story of Timothy Cavendish, which I thought was unnecessary in the novel, turns out to be the most entertaining of all. (A lot of this is due to the presence of Jim Broadbent, who gives the best performance in the movie, and one of the few not hampered by elaborate but frequently distracting makeup.) The Wachowskis can’t do much with the journal of Adam Ewing, but the futuristic ordeal of Somni-451 is right in their wheelhouse. It’s a movie that takes great risks and succeeds an impressive amount of the time. And as far as I’m concerned, the curse is broken. At least for now.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2012 at 10:02 am

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