The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cloud Atlas

Written by Dario Llinares.

Photo from the article

Printer friendly format [Normal view]

There is an experiential nexus into which all films must avoid pushing their audiences. This is a physical and cognitive no man's land, a Bermuda triangle, the vertices of which perhaps consist of boredom, discomfort and annoyance. Venturing into this nexus can cause the otherwise sympathetic viewer to lose fundamental patience. I have felt myself falling into this abyss many times over recent years; however, watching Cloud Atlas I experienced an acutely visceral reaction which built up over the seemingly interminable running time of the film. Is this the worst film I’ve ever seen? No, probably not. But I can't remember so strongly rejecting both the concept and execution of a film so totally for a long time. When one takes against a film so stridently, one always has to be mindful of the subjective nature of criticism. After all we bring ourselves to the text - our own habitus, viewpoints and prejudices - no matter how objective the criteria of judgment to which we aspire. Furthermore, the unashamed grandiloquence of the project in itself could arguably elicit admiration. However, that the film fails so spectacularly on almost every level is arguably amplified by this ambition.

Many novels have been defined as unfilmable but David Mitchell’s source text perhaps represents the zenith of this assertion. Six stories told over various eras and each written with different styles but with thematic connecting tissue averring notions of transcendence, religion, destiny and the cyclical notion of the universe, certainly would present a challenge to any filmmaker. Seemingly, Cloud Atlas’ difficulties began in the pre-production stage. With Hollywood rejecting the project, the directorial team of Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski turned to several German production companies, along with assistance from government backed German Federal Film Fund, to pull together the estimated $100 million budget. It is difficult to discern whether the difference between German and American backing would have had any substantial effect on the resultant film. For me, there is nothing about Cloud Atlas that reflects a specifically German (or European) sensibility, and though the film may be described as ‘independent’, the magnitude of the production, the source material, and the all-star cast suggest this project was always intended as a large scale, mainstream endeavor.

As I outlined in my short review, there are many aspects of Cloud Atlas that I found problematic. Having thought more about why my reaction was so profound, I want to postulate that my analysis can be subsumed into a wider critique of a prevalent tendency in contemporary popular cinema. I would characterize this in terms of an overblown self-indulgence and a lack of discipline, increasingly the hallmarks of many of the most successful and revered mainstream filmmakers. The most obvious feature of this is that gargantuan running times seem to be increasingly de rigueur. One may consider the - just short of three hours - running time for Cloud Atlas a necessity because of the complexity of the interweaving stories. However, as a matter of simple mathematics three hours divided by six stories gives thirty minutes per story. Logically, how much plot and character depth can emerge in that time? So what occurs with Cloud Atlas, paradoxically, is an overly long film whose individual stories are lacking development. The negotiation of this ‘problem’ is two-fold: cross cutting between stories theoretically breaks up the individualized narratives and implies complex interconnected thematics; and the use of actors playing multiple roles further alludes to a kind of cosmic connection across the eons, thus imbuing character depth that doesn't have time to build through the story arcs. Unfortunately, this fails for several reasons. The editing requires so many shifts that dramatic tension, suspense or feelings of danger or empathy are continually undercut. Across the stories the acting is distractingly uneven. I’m not saying it is bad - although that is arguable - just incongruous, not just from actor to actor but between the characters each actor is playing. I would suggest that this was a deliberate directorial move to try and parallel how the source novel deploys different prose styles in each story strand. Unfortunately, on screen, it jarringly accentuates performances of self-conscious theatricality (Hanks, Broadbent, Weaving, Grant) against the more understated ‘naturalised’ styles (Wishaw, Berry, Bae, Sturgess, D’Arcy).

That the film required three directors says something about the scale of the production. However, I want to argue here that Cloud Atlas (more specifically its directorial team) is indicative of what might be defined as a ‘cult of popular auteurism’. The commercial success of certain projects has afforded certain directors a heightened status that has translated into subsequent projects being overly-long, bloated, editorially in-disciplined, and perhaps even narcissistic. Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson, for me, exemplify this zeitgeist. They both delivered monumentally successful film series in the form the Dark Knight (2005-2012) and The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) franchises. Each individual film had long running times and arguably favored visual effects and spectacle over tight thematic and narrative structuring. The final films in each of these series also boast the never-ending ending (The Return of the King ends around 7 times, give or take). It seems that finding a coherent (or at least concise) resolution is another skill in need of a renaissance. Both series are also being spun-out to further projects. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) already being the first of three monster-length adaptations of what is in fact a slight book, and new Batman films are being discussed which would tie in with other superhero franchises. Spin-offs are a way extracting more consumerist potential from familiar formula and are thus another aspect of how contemporary mainstream projects become so bloated.

Quentin Tarantino is another serial offender in the contemporary stable of self-important overindulgence. Django Unchained (2012) has an awful lot of admirers but, like his previous film Inglourious Basterds (2009), it suffers from overly long, rambling scenes which seem to be statements in and of themselves but effectively undermine the pacing and plot construction of the overall work. Both come in at around the two and three-quarter-hour mark which makes the lack of coherence all the more obtuse. Self-contained vignettes within an overall structure (which is often complicated by rearrangement of linear time) have been a regular feature of Tarantino’s films. Indeed, I thought Django Unchained was good but with a more focused edit it could have been so much better. When one compares the stripped-down structural economy of Reservoir Dogs (1991) to the long and digressive nature of his later work, it is not an outlandish criticism to call him ill-disciplined. Perhaps audiences were offered a direct glimpse of his directorial egoism in the Channel 4 News interview where Tarantino claimed that Django Unchained had started a debate on slavery.

My assertions beg the question: have the likes of Nolan, Jackson and Tarantino simply acquired a status so powerful that once a project is green-lit no one can effectively offer a critique that may rein in some of the excess? It surely can't be that the quality of producers, cinematographers and editors working on these films are not aware such criticisms have a validity no matter how much a named director commands respect? Perhaps the force of name and reputation has forged a new era of ‘pop auteur’ power in which directorial autonomy is now almost unquestionable. Some might argue that such directors have a stature because of their box-office, a form of fan-powered success. As a film lecturer, anecdotally I would certainly say that these three directors represent a holy trinity who are almost unconditionally revered by (most) students. There seems to be a concentrated cultural capital, accrued through the key demographic (18-25 year olds) to which most films are aimed, that perhaps affords these specific directors an unhealthy amount of latitude. But this is also extending to other filmmakers and film genres. A case in point is the recent Judd Apatow ‘comedy’ This Is 40 (2012). For full disclosure, I admit a dislike for Apatow’s films both in terms of his brand of comedy and the middle-class, suburban American lives around which they are usually based. Watching This Is 40 was not as terrible an experience as I was expecting; however, any goodwill towards the film I may have had was obliterated by its unrelenting length and unrestrained self-adoration. The fact that the film is itself a spin-off from Knocked-Up (2007), and Apatow directs, produces, writes and has cast his wife (Leslie Mann) and children in the lead roles (alongside Paul Rudd, clearly Apatow’s screen surrogate), reflects a preposterous level of narcissism. The online renaming of this film "This is 40 minutes too long" is satirical, on the money, and applicable to much of today’s mainstream fayre.

There is undoubtedly an economic factor that influences this kind of filmmaking. It used to be that distributors favoured shorter running times so that more screenings could be squeezed into a day. But with high ticket prices and the extortionate cost of extras like food and drink, along with the (corporate) advantages of multiplexes showing the same film on multiple screens, filmmakers are increasingly working from a maxim that quantity equals value for money. Or, when a filmmaker reaches a certain status does every film have to have a seismic register on the cinematic landscape? The technological advances of CGI and 3D must also be considered as expanded possibilities for visual construction that increase the expectation for spectacle. The notion of an ‘event film’ is one thing, but there is almost an implied discourse which holds that anything under two hours and thirty minutes long is somehow inconsequential. Also, another factor may be the value that ‘quality television’ now possesses in the contemporary media environment: the HBO blueprint of high production values for long series allows for more in-depth story arcs and character development. These series also have a huge afterlife on DVD. Film, because of its fundamentally self-contained configuration, in terms of both its time frame and proscenium-based location, has to have a set of different priorities than television.

This, of course, is not to say that long films are essentially bad. Some of the greatest films of all time have tested an audience’s staying power physically and mentally. Indeed, the industry has obviously attempted to capitalise on DVD afterlife by exploiting extended and director’s cut versions. A film such as Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), for example, had an original running time of two hours and thirty three minutes when first released which, depending on your viewpoint, could seem excessive. This was an exception rather than the norm at the time however and if one has seen the extended Redux version, released in 2001 and running an extra 49 minutes, one can see that editorial decisions were made for the better of the film. In a sense, Cloud Atlas undermines my own argument here somewhat because it was not financed by Hollywood. Yet I would suggest that the status that the Wachowski’s garnered from their success with The Matrix (1999) is the major factor that facilitated the making of the film. These cinematic behemoths and the cult of the ‘pop auteur’ shows no sign of abating, and clearly there is a large audience out there for the giant pop-corn spectacle, but I can't help feeling that perhaps, like other inflated commercial industries, it may be a bubble that is about to burst.

This Alternate Take was published on March 27, 2013.