I’ll be the first to admit that Cloud Atlas is a mess: it veers wildly from ultra-serious slavery-concerned costume drama, to slapstick senior citizen farce, to shiny-yet-dystopic sci-fi fantasy. Even within these different segments, the story can take a turn from pure comedy–Tom Hanks, as a cartoon of a British gangster turned author, throws a book critic out out of a window–to sickening tragedy–the critic’s body hits the pavement, and we get to watch his blood splatter out like chunky ketchup. Esteemed actors camping it up under Big Momma’s House-style makeup; half a dozen virtually unconnected storylines continually interrupting each other; a future wherein the last surviving remnants of of the human race communicate in a grating Jar Jar Binks-esque dialect; the filmmakers seem to be rubbing our collective face in all the aspects of the movie that don’t really work (at least the way we expect them to work in a huge, epic film with clear pretensions toward Oscar-worthiness).
For many, the most irksome of all these elements is the use of makeup to change the appearance of an actor’s race, particularly from “white” to “a grotesque approximation of Korean.” The filmmakers have defended their choice by explaining that that they were attempting to suggest a shared humanity beyond race, age, gender, and nationality; hence the use of a single actor playing multiple parts across these divisions. Is it brave to court controversy in the service of such a powerful, humanistic message? If they’re so above it all, why go out of the way to avoid blackface?
We can all agree that there is a terrible history of black, brown, and yellowface in twentieth century cinema, from Birth of a Nation to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that it is impossible to use the technique without evoking the offensiveness of that history. Then again, there is another, older history of actors using makeup to cross lines of gender and race: that would be the history of theater. Not to imply that there isn’t an inherent racism and sexism in a history largely consisting of all white, all male performers, only that within that tradition, a performance could have a very different function than those we’re used to seeing in films today (at least not in outright comedies): that is, a performance that isn’t meant to contribute to an illusion of reality.
In my original write-up of the movie, I said that, “[Cloud Atlas] goes down fairly easy, with warmth, a generous sense of humor, and big, crowd-pleasing moments featuring the highly lovable movie star leads.” I was trying to make the point that the movie wasn’t so strange that it didn’t deserve an audience, and it’s true: there are moments in Cloud Atlas of beauty and triumph that generate honest to goodness emotional reactions. But it’s also true that these moments occur within a film that goes out of its way to completely undermine genre conventions, undermine the suspension of disbelief, and generally inhibit the audience from being able to ingest the film without questioning its form. And for this it was roundly criticized. It’s almost seems like a joke: “The new movie from the creators of The Matrix doesn’t present a realistic enough illusion of a fictional reality!”
For all its radical narrative style, the story isn’t that difficult to follow; however, it is difficult to engage in if you don’t take the movie for what it is. And yet, with a fairly digestible script, based on a bestselling novel, the commitment of three big name filmmakers, and several huge celebrities lined up for the starring roles, the movie almost didn’t get made; after cobbling the budget together with money from independent studios, Warner Bros., and the German government, they almost lost funding at the last minute. And once it was finally completed, a muddled ad campaign guaranteed the movie a middling return on investments. I’ll admit that the movie is a mess. I’ll admit the use of yellowface is problematic, to say the least. I’ll even admit that the ridiculous pidgin English spoken by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry is just plain bad. But did it deserve the utter apathy it received? The derision poured on by critics? In 2012, the same year a bore like Argo can win Best Picture? In this day and age, when so few truly original ideas make it to the big screen at all? I say no, Cloud Atlas didn’t deserve it.
And apparently, we don’t deserve movies like Cloud Atlas.