Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can the Epic Scope of "Cloud Atlas" Win Best Picture?

Tom Hanks
Update: I have written a review that you can read here.

This Friday marks the release of the highly anticipated epic from directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix series) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). The film is Cloud Atlas based on the best selling novel by David Mitchell that intertwines numerous stories through numerous eras. The ambitious scale of this sci-fi film has a lot to do to fill the three hour running time. However, can these three directors take the source material and turn it into a blockbuster hit of the Fall on a scale not seen since Avatar? Also, is it possible that we'll see this movie bump heads with Ben Affleck's Argo and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master for Best Picture?

It is bizarre to think that in this year that there would be two sci-fi films with contention for the Best Picture race. While Rian Johnson's Looper stood a chance of joining these ranks, it is actually Ang Lee's Life of Pi that I am referring to. Both of these films take best selling novels about existential conflicts and turned them into visually stunning pictures that have won over critics and may eventually fight over technical awards as the months drag on. It would be easy for audiences to get the two mixed up on broad generality alone.

The one advantage to Cloud Atlas, though, is the marketing. It notoriously premiered with a six minute trailer that pretty much explained everything you needed to know going into the film: 


There have since been trailers of shorter length that have managed to keep the spectacle but leave audiences equally confused. With gorgeous, elaborate banners cluttering theater lobbies, this is at least a nice, artistic film to look at. While some may contest that Tom Hanks' Good Morning America appearance was the pinnacle of the marketing rounds, it is actually the Q+A appearances of long time recluses Lana and Andy Wachowski. It is impossible to turn a corner without seeing a brand new interview (/Film is currently running a four part interview). 

Listening to the Wachowskis talk about this in broad detail only shows the amount of passion that went into the effort. In fact, they are selling this movie so aggressively that they even released this 13 minute video to help the uninitiated understand the universe:

What is impressive is the amount of footage and details released about the project and yet it still barely scratches the surface. The bigger issues, however, lie in the Wachowksi's previous films. Besides The Matrix, which is regarded as one of the quintessential sci-fi films of all time, they have produced two maligned sequels and a Speed Racer adaptation that earned them a Razzies nomination for Worst Sequel, Prequel, Remake or Rip-off. Before you go and accuse them of being bad writers (they did pen all of their work), do note that they also wrote V for Vendetta, which earned a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and inspired the resurgence of Guy Fawkes mask and general political rebellion. Of course the V for Vendetta director James McTeigue has fared less successfully since the film, most recently with a John Cussack vehicle called The Raven.

Still, it has been a bad sign lately that the Wachowskis cannot write and direct their own material, even if they are adapting the source material. Even those who can acknowledge the incompetent narration of Speed Racer will acknowledge that the Wachowskis are definitely a visual delight at times and usually ambitious. The problem lies more in the writing, which was originally praised for philosophical discussions and quickly evolved to crap shoot payoffs. They haven't directed a bonafide classic in over ten years, which leaves many to wonder if this is going to be as successful as it is selling itself as.

The one benefit is that they are co-directing with Tom Tykwer, whose most notable film to date has been Run Lola Run, a tale that is almost Rashomon with running and dance music, telling multiple stories with different consequences. Along with a four year absence between Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas, there is a possibility that juices have been recharged and things are back in order. After all, the one positive note is how passionate the directors are in discussing the film, which is something they haven't done in close to a decade.

Another intriguing factor is the cast, which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant to name the more familiar names. This is a really impressive ensemble, and a very charismatic one that could take the subject matter and make it work. The movies asks for them to be adaptable and play numerous roles, and it seems like these veterans could be up for it. At most, it could also refuel many of these actor's careers, notably Berry and Grant, whose work has been more low key as of recent. 

Before I dive into specifics, I figured that you should understand the plot of the movie according to IMdB, in case the trailers haven't answered that question:
"An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution."
That sounds just like something the people behind the philosophical ramblings of The Matrix would take joy in working on. It is easy to see them taking on this project, even if they have since become questionable directors, choosing style over substance. Still, with a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (subject to change as more reviews come in), there is some promise that it could be good. Of course, the only thing making this more ambitious is the budget, which at an excess of $100 million may prove to be a hurdle for a movie that is Rated R for: violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. This is definitely going to be a hardcore sci-fi film and at most a very big gamble financially. In a way, it is easy to see how the Wachowskis are enthusiastic more for it to be a hit if it proves to lack substance.

Doona Bae
However, most of that is conversation for another day. What we're here to talk about is the Oscar potential. Is it possible that this film can get a Best Picture nod? The grand scope, visual awe, and high caliber actors are all flashy enough to make it possible. Still, it comes down to quality. When it is up against the more slimmed down Life of Pi, which raises similar questions but from a spiritual standpoint, it has to be able to distinguish itself from the pack and at very least have a competent story. While the Wachowskis co-wrote it with Tykwer, there is still an acceptable amount of fear that they should have gotten a different writer.

Going off of their track record, however, we should expect them to do very well in the technical categories, notably visual effects. Their nominations include: 

The Matrix

*Best Sound Editing: Dane A. Davis
*Best Visual Effects: John Gaeta, Janek Sirrs, Steve Courtley, Jon Thum
*Best Film Editing: Zach Staenberg
*Best Sound: John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, David E. Campbell, David Lee

"*" indicates wins.

This has always been their strong suit, and with an additional director tagged on to cover this laborious subject matter, it is easy to see them dominating these fields again. The bigger question is if they can break out of the technical fields and show a presence elsewhere.

Truthfully, it is too early to determine if the acting will draw any consideration. However, in a year when nominations are already filled up with The Sessions, The Master, and Lincoln, it will have to be pretty impressive to get a spot. Of course, the one benefit of this story line insures that every actor has to play multiple roles. Therefore, if there is a singular performance that features enough dynamics, we can be looking at very least one nomination. As to whom it could be, I don't know. Based on the Academy's love for Tom Hanks, it could possibly be him, though in the hazy female acting categories, it is possible to see Halle Berry get a spot.

The biggest doubt is that it will place in the Best Director category. With three directors, it already seems like too many cooks in the kitchen. While it isn't implausible, as the Coen Brothers won for No Country for Old Men, this is a sci-fi film and as history will show, the Academy doesn't care too much for sci-fi. In fact, on Oscar statistics website Gold Derby, they don't even make the Top 10, while other sci-fi competitor Life of Pi ranks at #6 with odds of winning at 12:1. The Cloud Atlas team is at #18 with the near impossible odds of 100:1. Its odds in the Best Picture category are identical.

However, this could all change when the movie is released and more reviews are established. It is too early to build a precise buzz around it. The one gleam of hope is that sci-fi has been more recognized as of late with films like Avatar and District 9 getting nominated. However, this big budgeted tale of multiple stories seems may need to prove a lot to compete with Life of Pi, whose chances are increasingly more optimistic. This could largely be due to the Academy's appreciation of Ang Lee, who previously won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, an already more prestigious title than the Wachowskis or Tykwer ever received. A three hour movie may be quite a struggle to turn that opinion around.

Halle Berry

However, there is one field that I really am rooting for this film to get. Take some time out of your day to listen to the score composed by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil. In this field on Gold Derby, it is placed at #7 with odds of 16:1. Still, I would like to see this get nominated above Argo or Beasts of the Southern Wild, which had fine music choices, but once you hear the Cloud Atlas score, you'll change your mind.

It isn't that it is revolutionary, but it has been awhile since there was a score that elevated emotion on a grand scale such as this one. There is a vast orchestration to it and the chords drift in and out almost beautifully. There is a symphonic feel to it and is beautiful all on its own. I am not expecting this film to win, but at least place. It has some tough competition against Jonny Greenwood's The Master, which will hopefully not get shut out this time. While it has yet to be seen how well the music impacts the film, it is a wonderful piece of music that can very easily stand on its own and may be the film's lasting legacy if the film lacks substance.

Overall, I am convinced that Cloud Atlas will be a really strong epic, but not enough to get major nominations. I hope that it at least gets Best Original Score, and every technical field. Even the costuming awards would be perfectly acceptable, as the trailers show a wide array of outfits. This film looks expensive and it deserves recognition for it. The question now is if it can be anything more than a dazzling recovery from the Wachowskis. It may lose some sci-fi love to Life of Pi, but can it stand on its own?

Is Cloud Atlas just an overlong film that looks good but lacks substance? Can the Wachowskis do the impossible and make a strong presence despite their spotty track record? What is keeping the score from totally dominating against Jonny Greenwood and John Williams' Lincoln?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting prediction. I for one think Cloud Atlas is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I have more respect for the Wachowskis now than I ever did, and that's including my continuous rewatch of the Matrix. But since most of the praise of this film has gone towards its intricate story and its layers of substance I think you would agree that it has way better chances at a creative award than it did when you posted this prediction. Yes Tom Hanks is still their best chance at an acting nomination (even though I preferred Hugo Weaving) I still don't see it happening there. But I do see it getting nominated for best picture since there is a maximum of 10 spots. They might not get a director nomination simply because of the fact that there are 3 of them in the mix and the academy likes to stick with singles or established duos and Tykwer might feel to them like an odd man out. I certainly can see a screenplay nomination since there is a chance that unreleased movies could disappoint like Lincoln, Life of Pi, or Les Miserables (Not entirely, they still will probably get good reviews but the scripts might just fall a bit flat for the academy. Anyway I am definitely reviewing this film for my own blog even though I focus on old films. Great blog you have here, I love Oscar predictions, you got a follower.