Here’s the most depressing thing about Cloud Atlas:
As I was watching the movie, my recurrent thought was “Wow, this was probably the most expensive movie ever made.”
Not just the special effects — although they looked like they cost zillions — the big name, pricey A-listers Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, plus lots of people from other early-alphabet lists: Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Jim Sturgess.
No, it turns out, it cost “only” $100 million. It was the most expensive independent movie ever made, but still, as major releases go, it’s only average.
Here’s the depressing part: despite the fact that this critically acclaimed movie was made on the cheap, it still was a major box-office bomb. It lost $75 million. To put that in perspective, John Carter, the ultra-expensive filming of the Edgar Rice Burrough novel that was universally panned and largely ignored by audiences, lost only $65 million.
No, that wasn’t the depressing part, here’s the depressing part: I’m sure a lot of investors who were pitched this movie turned it down by saying, “No one is going to go see a three-hour plus movie that considers how love and loyalty affect people’s lives over the course of four centuries.” They said it, and they were right. That’s the depressing part. It was in many ways a good movie, and in some ways a great movie, and no one but me really wanted to see it.
The movie is a deliberate pastiche. It’s six small movies, set in different times and shown intercut together. Each mini-movie is from a different genre: one is a sea-opera of a type that (except for 2003’s Master And Commander) they haven’t made for decades; another is a Merchant-Ivory-style “quality picture” about buggery and classical music in the 1920s; a third is a paranoia thriller like The Parallax View, Winter Kills, and Three Days Of The Condor; and so on.
The films aren’t connected by plot or characters — the composer’s boyfriend from the Merchant-Ivory episode shows up (decades older) to give vital information about a corrupt corporation to the crusading reporter (Halle Berry, nicely channeling Pam Grier) in the paranoia episode, but that’s it. They’re thematically linked though; in each episode, the hero or heroine makes a sacrifice for love and although the sacrifice isn’t typically rewarded directly, the effects resonate for subsequent generations until finally, we see the characters, or at least the characters played by the same actors who played the earlier characters, living in a post-post-apocalyptic paradise. If you imagine Love, Actually done as a Twilight Zone marathon, well, you won’t understand the movie, but you’ll save yourself the $12 and the drive to Bakersfield, which is the nearest theater still playing it, four weeks after it premiered.
There are two ways for a movie to qualify as a “good” movie. One is to simply be an enjoyable way to spend two hours in a darkened room with 400 of your closest friends. This kind of good movie is pretty common. This year alone we had The Avengers, Ted, Magic Mike, Dark Knight Rises, Pitch Perfect, and probably a few more I’ve forgotten or didn’t see.
The other way is to be a movie that makes it possible for other movies to be good or great. Birth Of A Nation and Citizen Kane are the classic examples: they taught other filmmakers how to make movies. I’m not a huge Tarantino fan, but his Pulp Fiction brought post-modernism to the movies. It cleared the way to have movies be about movies (like Cloud Atlas, for example), to not have linear story-lines, to have long stretches of dialog. Perhaps a more controversial example: every comedy since The Hangover has tried to be, in some sense, The Hangover.
And Cloud Atlas could have been in that category. There could have been more movies that used multiple, disconnected but thematically linked story-lines, that used special effects to make the movie smarter rather than dumber, that used human emotions as something other than excuses for fight scenes and nude scenes. To accomplish that, though, it would have had to succeed in a financial sense, or at least not fail utterly and completely, and, unless it becomes a cult favorite, that’s not going to happen with Cloud Atlas.
Which is depressing.