Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Review of "Cloud Atlas"

I was looking for an innocuous movie to take my 86 year-old mother to. She’s a Bridges of Madison County kind of movie fan, but she’d already seen Trouble with the Curve, which was the closest thing to a mom-flick out there. So, when I checked the listings for the Birch Run Cinema and saw the ad for Cloud Atlas, I thought, aha, Tom Hanks . . . Jim Broadbent . . . Hugh Grant. It had innocuous written all over it. Plus, it looked interesting. So I said, let’s go. I knew I’d made a mistake long before the scene where the pretty South Korean replicant girls are being slaughtered and hung up, steer fashion, to be recycled. I think I got my first clue with the flogging of an African slave on some Pacific atoll. 

            But aside from the fact that you might not want to take your mother to see this movie, was it any good? Yes and no.

            Cloud Atlas is very ambitious and works extremely hard to be spiritual and profound. It interweaves six narrative lines set: 1) somewhere in the Pacific 1849; 2) in Cambridge around 1918 (if I remember right); 3) in 1973 San Francisco; 4) in present day London; 5) in a very far future Seoul; and 6) way way out in the future on an island—possibly the same one as in the 1849 line.  (I haven’t read the novel this movie is based on.) One of the assumptions of the movie is that reincarnation is part of the scheme of things, so the main actors appear again and again throughout the movie. The ethical point is that one’s crimes and acts of kindness resonate through time, affecting the future and possibly even the past—a very karmic thought and also a very Charles Williams kind of thought (read Descent into Hell).

            The issues dealt with are various forms of human exploitation, in plot order, as follows: slavery; persecution of homosexuals; evil oil companies rigging nuclear power plants to explode so you’ll buy more oil; a comic parody of the other plots wherein Jim Broadbent shines as a publisher whose vindictive brother has had him committed to an nursing home; slavery again, this time of human beings grown in vitro; finally, a tribe of nice, kind peaceful islanders being slaughtered by the descendents of the rock group, Kiss.

            The plot lines not only use the same actors—and identifying them is part of the fun—but the same situations of capture and escape. The point seems to be the same as in Ground Hog Day, where people have to bang their heads against the same ethical problems until them get the right—or don’t.

            Now, all this to me would be an intriguing recipe for a good movie. I like fantasy and I like big movies, so the 2 hour and 44 minute running time was not an initial problem. By far the best story lines were the present day Jim Broadbent bit, as the captured publisher, paying for past sins, and the future Seoul, in which the beautiful Chinese actress Xun Zhou just steals the show—and there are some great action sequences in that part, by the way.

            The evil oil company is such a cliché, it’s a failure of the imagination to run it again, but it gives one of my favorites, Hugo Weaving, plenty of chances to shoot at people and Halle Berry her best innings. James Sturges and David Gyasi have a good gamble in the first plot of a runaway slave and the lawyer who keeps him in his cabin as a stowaway. Ben Whishaw, who played a rather soppy John Keats in Bright Star is the star of the second plot line; he’s a gay composer who gets a piece of music “given” to him from beyond, and this becomes the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” which echoes through the movie as the underlying bit of celestial harmony that holds the world and the movie together. It’s supposed to be the most beautiful piece of music imaginable, but unfortunately, they have to keep playing it, and it isn’t. I liked the piece--better than average soundtrack here--but it ain’t Bach or Beethoven; still, the plot needs the music of the spheres, and what you can get away with proclaiming in a novel was more than could be reproduced for a movie.

            My reservations about Cloud Atlas are not serious, but here they are. First, Cloud Atlas busts a gut to be “important,” and going “big” is often a mistake in this regard. This movie goes big. Second, from my Catholic point of view, it just reinvents the wheel while sedulously steering clear of any Christian reference whatsoever. The main point of the movie is that self-sacrificing love is an objective force in the universe. Amen to that fair prayer, say I. There isn’t a more Christian thought in the world, but mainstream Hollywood is allergic to that recognition. It goes the expected syncretistic route. The bigger problem is that this movie didn’t make me feel the reality of the self-sacrificing behavior I saw on-screen. It was a bit comic bookish, a bit reheated. As W. H. Auden says in "Musee des Beaux Arts," there's always some horse in the background scratching his ass while the crucifixion takes place or Icarus plummets into the sea. This movie needed some ass scratching. The last plot line is close to a Mad Max movie, so that adds a second clichéd plot. The two plots that worked effectively were undercut by those that did not.

            On the other hand, I’m going to read the novel.

No comments:

Post a Comment