Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Cloud Atlas”

Dear Frank,

Cloud Atlas German PosterAs we’ve previously discussed, I have a weird fondness for the Wachowskis despite their career ups and downs, and (as we have not previously discussed) I am DEFINITELY a fan of Tom Tykwer. (Run Lola Run is one of those movies that gets you a good two decades worth of goodwill from me. I mean, I haven’t watched it for at least a decade, and it might not hold up, but DAMN that was a good movie when it first came out.)

So a Wachowski/Tykwer team-up like Cloud Atlas, last year’s big budget genre mash-up? A-PLUS IDEA.

The actual movie, though… Sigh.

My initial exposure to Cloud Atlas, the book, was pretty much ideal: I borrowed it from a friend I was crashing with during a 2008 stay in England, and pretty much devoured it while crossing back and forth across the Thames on the bus. It absorbed my attention in spurts, and the structure of the storytelling kept me compelled; some sections I liked better than others, but that’s always the nature of a novel like this.

I’ve only read the book once, but it was pretty memorable — thus, when discussion of there being a film adaptation arose, I felt vaguely well-qualified to understand what a crazypants idea that was. (And that was BEFORE I heard about the fucking sixtuple-casting!)

A year after the film’s premiere, adapting this book remains a crazypants idea; yet I’ve now seen Cloud Atlas a whopping three times and could see myself watching it again at some point. Why is that, you might ask? I mean, what the hell happens in this movie, anyway?

Great questions, Frank! Let’s start with the second one, because it’s not actually hard to break down the plot of the film. It’s technically six short stories:

  • In the 1800s, a guy sails back from some sort of tropics to America — he helps a runaway slave, a mean doctor tries to poison him to steal his money, but eventually he gets home, becomes an abolitionist, survives.
  • In the 1930s, a guy becomes a ghostwriter for an elderly composer, fucks the composer’s wife, writes his own symphony, and then kills himself.
  • In the 1970s, a gal investigates a corrupt nuclear power plant, nearly gets killed for doing so, survives.
  • In the 1990s, a guy who is a book publisher gets trapped in a nursing home, escapes, survives.
  • In the not-too-distant future, a gal who is a cloned fast food worker tries to revolt against a totalitarian society, gets killed.
  • In the much-more-distant future, a guy helps a gal escape cannibals and send a message off-planet; he ends up going with her to a new world.

Normal everyday stuff, right Frank?

The stories are united by a huge amount of intercutting, a shooting star birthmark seen on the main characters of each story, and a cast shared across all six time periods. Which would be cool, except that latter thing ends up making the movie maybe-kinda-sorta SUPER-RACIST.

I don’t know at what point the Wachowskis and Tykwer decided it’d be a good idea to slap shit-tons of make-up on actors including Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon and Jim Sturgess, enabling them to portray a variety of races, genders and ages. I just know that when you try to make a white person look Korean, they end up looking like a Vulcan.

Oh hai Hugo Weaving! You don't look PROBLEMATIC IN THE SLIGHTEST.

Oh hai Hugo Weaving! You don’t look PROBLEMATIC IN THE SLIGHTEST.

For a full accounting of all the film’s racial problems, I must recommend the always-amazing Andrew Ti’s breakdown on Grantland, who thoroughly answered the question “Yo, Is This Racist?” (Though he missed the fact that Cloud Atlas did not in fact dodge blackface entirely — Jim Broadbent, for a brief moment, takes on a much darker hue in the post-apocalyptic section.)

Tom Hanks is the only one to escape major race-bending, which, smart move Tom Hanks, because unlike Hugh Grant you won’t have screenshots like this haunting you until the end of the world (and maybe even beyond that, rocket ships depending).

Yes, Frank, that's Hugh Grant, made up to look like a Korean from the not-too-distant future, with a lady's foot in his mouth.

Yes, Frank, that’s Hugh Grant, made up to look like a Korean from the not-too-distant future, with a lady’s foot in his mouth.

GREAT IDEA FOR A FILM, right Frank? Well, the individual stories do lend themselves to a few thrilling sequences — for example, the not-too-distant future includes some fantastic flying car bits, and the old folk escaping from the nursing home is surprisingly fun.

And the best scene of the movie, hands down, is the 1800s bit where the slave on the ship proves his mettle as a sailor — it’s just a beautiful, exciting bit of film.

Which is why I can see myself watching Cloud Atlas again at some point in the future; as frustrating and weird and bad as they can occasionally be, the Wachowskis persist in proving that they have the potential for cinematic mastery.

I took a break while watching Cloud Atlas to check out the trailer for Jupiter Ascending, their next film, which features Channing Tatum (maybe alien, definitely goatee-ed), Mila Kunis (maybe alien, maybe a princess) and so much crazypants stuff, I have no idea what’s happening, I just know that this movie needs to be in my eyeballs NOW.

And that’s why I will keep coming back to the Wachowskis, time and time again. Even when their work is problematic/dumb/insane, they’re at least INTERESTING. And thank Hugh Jackman for that.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on December 11, 2013, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I really liked this movie. In this case, i don’t think that putting actors into heavy make-up to portray different races is at all racist. They are supposed to be incarnations of the same soul, and if the character is supposed to be Euro-white in one era and then Korean in another, well then, you either hire a Korean actor and make him/her white, or hire a white actor and make him/her Korean. I love how they didn’t allow themselves to be tied down by race. I think our automatic aversion to Black Face is understandable, but perhaps too knee-jerk. If an actor is perfect for the part, then the casting director should ask themselves two questions: 1) does the race even matter? Unless it’s historical, or the character’s race plays a factor in the plot (as is the case in this movie), then it doesn’t matter. 2). If race does matter, can they a) find a better actor who is already of said race? If not, then can they b) believably make this actor appear to be of said race? In the case of this movie, option B was their only option, since the actors had to play more than one race. So, what’s the big deal? They didn’t cast The Hobbit with only people with dwarfism, and this falls under the same kind of casting decision in my mind (not to say that white/asian/black/whatever people = dwarfs, you know what I mean!). Anyway, that’s why I don’t think this movie is racist at all.

  1. Pingback: Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Snowpiercer” | Liz Tells Frank What Happened In...

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