If you can find a review of Cloud Atlas that doesn’t use the word “ambition,” I will give you a quarter. Everyone is talking about the sheer grandiosity of the project, an adaptation of a book that has been called “unfilmable.” More than simply the most obvious talking point, the movie’s vast scope is also a major point of division between critics. Those that love it seem to praise its ambition most of all, while its detractors claim that the Wachowski Starship and Tom Tykwer bit off far more than they could chew. I would argue for the latter, that while there are many excellent individual moments spread across Cloud Atlas’s six stories, the larger endeavor often gets bogged down in its own scope. However, that might mean nothing at all for its Oscar chances.
Cloud Atlas is a great example of a group we might call “lesser epics.” These films tell broad, temporally extensive narratives that take up many years, distant locales, and well over two hours of screen time. They are often period pieces with meticulous detailing, gorgeous landscapes, and the occasional stunning special effects. Yet for whatever reason they don’t come quite come together in the end and they rarely make much money. At the end of the day, however, their ambition is often deemed enough on its own to garner a smattering of Oscar nominations. Cloud Atlas is nothing if not ambitious, but is that enough to impress the Academy?
My favorite example of a lesser epic is 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra. It was the death-knell of the “panorama” historical films of the 1960s, a lush portrait of the last days of the Russian monarchy. Crippled by its almost silly attention to historical detail, its 183 minutes are full of unnecessary nods to oddly-cast political figures. It bombed at the box office yet pulled off six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It won in two categories, Art Direction and Costume Design. How many technical nods does it take to get into that top category by momentum alone? Nicholas and Alexandra was rewarded handsomely for its sheer expense and grand aspirations. The same could happen for Cloud Atlas.
Plenty of these expensive failures do even better than that. Cleopatra won four statues from nine nominations, despite being one of the more dramatic critical and financial disasters in history. I am sure there are those who would include such punching-bags as The English Patient, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and War Horse. These movies seem especially valued if they include already-beloved stars or filmmakers, which was certainly the wind in Cleopatra’s sails. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and the Wachowskis might have the push to make the difference, though probably not as much as Steven Spielberg or David Fincher and Brad Pitt. It’s also certainly easier than it was years ago, with the expanded slate of nominees.
At the far end of this collection of lesser epics are those got nowhere at all. For every Cleopatra there is an Australia or Alexander. If the movie does indeed bomb, both commercially and critically, it can be quite the rough path. Of course, Cloud Atlas is nowhere near as terrible as Oliver Stone’s overbearing and frustrating Macedonian mess. It’s more likely that it will fall somewhere in the realm of King Kong, The Last Samurai of the ever-traumatic Nine.
The visual effects are a no-brainer, pulling much of the weight in the 2144 portion of the film. Like The Matrix and Blade Runner tossed into a blender, the flying car chases through an ominous “New Seoul” cityscape might be the most entertaining sequences in the entire 172 minutes. This sci-fi bent continues into the far-future narrative, culminating in the unfolding of a giant artichoke-shaped antenna on an island peak. Some of the images feel derivative, but they are all carefully designed and expertly executed.
Equally certain to receive some credit is the score, composed by Tom Tykwer and frequent collaborators Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. The 1936 story is centered on a young composer whose “Cloud Atlas Sextet” is the musical glue that holds these disparate narratives together. The diversity of location and period is reflected in enigmatic orchestrations, aiding often seamless transitions of time and place. The other crucial component on that point, Alexander Berner’s editing (one editor on a film with three directors, mind you), might be less likely to make it to a nomination given how closely that category tends to mimic Best Picture. Yet it deserves the attention, somehow darting from scene to scene without ham-handedness or brutality.
Cloud Atlas does manage to get its point across somewhat, but it’s a nebulous one. Each of these stories builds toward an affirmation of the human spirit in the face of the officially coded “natural order,” but there are too many distractions along the way for anything to really coalesce. The entirety of the 2012 portion, Jim Broadbent’s romping escape from a nursing home, mucks up everything around it. It is ironic that the narrative set in our own times has the least to say about who we are.
For every beautifully rendered connection there is a diversion that, while perhaps narratively necessary, takes us one step back from any potentially triumphant conclusion. This muddle is what will block Cloud Atlas from that elusive Best Picture nomination, and what cements its place in a long line of lesser epics. Ambition alone does not make history.