What do these movies have in common? Two nicely photographed films with non-traditional narrative structures, both based on novels, and both Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi deal with metaphysical issues not usually handled effectively in film.
Both are worth seeing because they are anything but run of the mill, but both are also at least moderately disappointing because the stories seem to promise so much more than is delivered.
Despite its length and complexity, I find Cloud Atlas the more intriguing of the two films because it has more thematic consistency and addresses the complicated and important issue of cultural hegemony as characters meet repeatedly across time and continue to deal with oppression, enslavement, violence, and – of course – love and enlightenment. Humans are complex creatures. It seems that even small steps of progress are intermittent and hard-won. Somehow, that does feel true, even though it is sad to think about and to see in a sprawling and ambitious movie.
Though I have admired director Ang Lee and even loved some of his earlier films, Life of Pi seems plagued by poor pacing (how long did that journey on the lifeboat really have to last?) and – partly as a result of the pacing – the competing stories Pi tells about his rescue emerge from a fuzzy philosophy (and hodge-podge of theological traditions) that makes the film seem more superficial and reductive than its intentions
Since these two films figure prominently in a dialogue with New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott that is worth reading, I’ll share a link.
Tomorrow I’ll write about the film I’ve seen recently that I really love: The Sessions. If you see this recommendation before that post, go ahead and see it. We can discuss this gem later!