Ambition is something that should always be applauded in a film, and if there’s one thing you can say about Cloud Atlas, Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, it is that it’s ambitious. The film – nearly three hours long – is a complex and sprawling monster that covers 500 years, much of it in the future, and takes in locations from London to a Hawaii, gradually unraveling six separate plots in an epic meditation on life, the universe and everything. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, and you won’t forget it once you’ve watched it. However ambition means risk, and it’s going to be down to personal taste whether you see it as a stunning masterpiece, or a slightly messy house of cards that collapses under the weight of its own pretension.
As mentioned, Cloud Atlas tells six stories, each interwoven with the others and featuring a couple of recurring characters. In the earliest, set in 1849, an American lawyer travels to the south Pacific where his witnessing the whipping of a slave leads him to join the abolitionist movement in the United States. The three stories from 1936 to 2012 take place in Britain and America, examining a blackmailed composer, a journalist who uncovers a nuclear conspiracy, and a murderous Irish gangster respectively. The earlier of the two futuristic plots is set in 2144 in the hilariously named Neo Seoul, and the later in a primitive post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Unsurprisingly, this variation of time and place makes for some dazzling scenes and images, and the CGI and cinematography are tremendous. It’s undeniably well paced and edited, and over the course of its 171 minutes you’re unlikely to get bored. You may, however, get bewildered, because some of the items on this cinematic smorgasbord are a little odd.
For a start, there’s the recycling of actors and actresses across the stories. Tom Hanks, for example, is a Victorian doctor in 1849, a nuclear scientist in 1973, and a hairy tribesman in 2321, and the film’s other stars also fill multiple roles. Depending on your opinion, this is either a stroke of genius or an annoying and confusing misstep; it forces you to draw connections between different characters and their roles in the grand panorama of life, but it also distracts from the substance of the film by threatening to turn it into a game of Spot Hugo Weaving. The amount of make-up involved in facilitating this role-hopping must itself have taken up a sizeable portion of the movie’s $100 million budget, and Hugh Grant as tribal chieftain treads the fine line between terrifying and ridiculous.
On a wider scale it’s the same kind of ambitious complexity that is in a way, the biggest problem with Cloud Atlas. Dipping in and out of stories, juggling dozens of characters, and veering from quiet conversation in a country house to explosive shootouts in a space-age dystopia, it’s questionable whether the grand conceit really hangs together. The film’s central theme is the importance and connectedness of human life, but sometimes this fails to shine through the spectacle on the surface, or seems undermined by all-too-frequent moments of bathos.
This is one way to see Cloud Atlas: as a bit of a mess. Although if you give yourself over to its imaginative power, then you’ll see that it’s incredibly impressive. It’s a film that wears its heart on its sleeve, and incredibly earnest in its project of saying something potent about humanity and the interrelation of different lives. So the scope of the work is massive, and the directors have stopped at nothing to bring it to fruition; from the top hats to the spaceships there’s a commitment to realising the time and place, and just as the detail is sumptuous, the big picture is majestic. The performances are also great, with none of the cast threatening to overwhelm the project: fitting for a film about the multiplicity of life. If you approach it cynically, you’ll think it’s an overextended muddle, but if you buy into its ambition then you’ve got something very unique and very powerful.
Before giving this review, I need to first make one point very clear: the Oscars have always nominated films deemed overrated by the general public. Sometimes it seems like they are too formulaic, too preachy, too overenthusiastic to make a sweeping statement about humanity told innumerable times before. But it is not really fair to judge something harshly just because it may be over-glorified by others, and film reviews like this must be handled accordingly. But is the film actually noteworthy? Well, that is an entirely different question.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close involves an autistic boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), his mystery-centred connection with his father Thomas (Tom Hanks), and 9/11. Even without any spoilers on my part, most people could guess that this story explores the impact of loss during childhood. Indeed, it does not help Oskar’s connection with his now-devastated, widowed mother Linda (Sandra Bullock), nor does it assist in his struggles in social environments. Eventually, a key is found in his father’s closet, and Oskar keeps the past alive by searching to find its place. But it may be his future that is found instead. (Because the key’s unlocking his heart! Get it? See the poetic symbolism?)
All corny jokes aside, many award-baiting elements are present – several Oscar-noted actors, the director of The Reader, a kid linked with autism (topical disorder of the decade). And in spite of being raised close to New York City, I have absolutely no problem with it addressing 9/11 – because after all, this is an adaptation from a bestselling novel. But it needs to be done in good taste; and by “good taste”, I mean having a likeable protagonist.
It is not that the child actor playing Oskar is completely terrible, but it never seemed like we could relate to his emotional states, which often came across as self-absorbed and unsympathetic to others at best. In a film about loss on 9/11. I’m sorry, but when a child tells a parent, “I wish you were in the towers instead” (multiple times!), I check out emotionally. When complimented with drawn-out dialogue and atrociously pretentious narration by Horn (“People living over the dead”? Is the film not ham-fisted enough?), the first hour was near-unbearable.
But then he encounters a mute stranger known as “The Renter”, played by Max von Sydow. Make no mistake, he’s getting nominations for saving this film, conveying more with facial expressions and a notepad than director Stephen Daldry ever does. It presents a character that’s truly unique, displays a relationship that forces Oskar to grow, and in turn, gives much less need for narration. Perhaps not coincidentally, Oskar actually starts to come across like a real kid – albeit one that likely had issues way before his father died, but one who we can empathize with during his pain.
So this film frustrates me. The first half is terrible, while the second half had me emotional multiple times. So I guess ending on a high note makes it…pretty decent. But with more daring edits to the screenplay, better pacing, and a delivery that doesn’t seem so manipulative, we would likely not need to wonder why it got nominated for Best Picture. As it stands, we do and rightfully (and sadly) so.
By Ian Clemente
In 1994 and 95, Tom Hanks became only the second person to win and subsequently retain the Oscar for best actor. Not only that but he is one of Steven Spielberg’s favourite performers, has appeared in a number of the most successful films ever made and even has an asteroid named after him. That would be quite a return for anyone, let alone somebody so mediocre at acting. Indeed I would go so far as to deem it miraculous that a person who can only play one character, and quite a boring one at that, could become such a global star.
Tom Hanks plays the same person in every film; he is always the good guy, a trustworthy all American hero. He never plays a real anti-hero, and he never will. The Tom Hanks character does have its variations; he can be a little bit angrier, a bit stupider, a married man or a bachelor. Occasionally he’s a tad scared and every once in while he loses his rag. Sadly though, whatever the surface variation, it’s always the same guy on the inside.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is in Hanks’ new film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Hanks plays a loving and doting father figure, a performance criticised as overly sentimental, bordering on unwatchable. Perhaps the critics today would be well served re-watching Road to Perdition. In that film Hanks plays a gangster and murderer but, the odd burst of righteous anger and machine gun fire aside, Hanks’ character is basically a predictable, safe, loving father figure. Despite initially appearing to be a total departure, it is a classic Hanks role.
Or again, in Saving Private Ryan, Hanks plays a military leader who ends up as a father figure to his regiment. He’s an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. What about Toy Story? Woody is an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. Catch Me If You Can? The same. Philadelphia? The same. Forrest Gump? You guessed it, the same again.
Indeed, looking back through Tom Hanks’ filmography, a pattern starts to emerge. Compared to other similarly acclaimed actors, one starts to wonder quite how he has made so much of so little. Where is the Travis Bickle, Jake Gittes or Vito Corleone on his C.V.? You’d expect that someone with such a long and successful history would try something new once in a while but, in this case, you’d be wrong.
In fact it is very easy to describe any Tom Hanks role. Firstly there is an archetypal character, a sort of virtuous good guy, honest, heroic, trustworthy and, the Terminal aside, American. Secondly there is a context, something like ‘he’s a soldier on D-Day’, ‘he’s a gangster in the 20s’ or ‘he’s a castaway on an island’. That’s it, really.
Perhaps it’s understandable then that Hanks has done so much of his work with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Both are excellent filmmakers, one could even call Spielberg a genius, but both are also both notable for their sentimentalism, emotional manipulation and distaste for moral ambiguity. By contrast Martin Scorsese, the master of the anti-hero, has eschewed Hanks throughout his career, preferring more versatile talents like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
Fortunately for Tom Hanks, the character he plays happens to be the perfect one for Hollywood audiences. He is a very safe man to cast, he always does the same thing and it always makes money. In fact since his breakthrough in Big Hanks has been acclaimed as a great actor. If so, then he’s the dullest ‘great’ actor I’ve ever seen.