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Lost in the Nuclear Clouds

I watched Cloud Atlas (2012) over the last two nights (it’s almost 3 hours long) and was surprised that one plotline involves a nuclear energy facility, at least tangentially.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it tells six distinct stories in widely variant time periods, each in its own style. Like D.W. Griffith’s similarly structured Intolerance (1916), its stories are built around a common theme – in the case of Cloud Atlas, the interconnectedness of everyone through eternity.

To bring this point home, many of the actors play roles in all six stories, crossing gender, racial and ethnic lines. This is different than the David Mitchell novel the movie is based on, which doesn’t suggest the characters reincarnate; the novel also tells the six stories sequentially while the movie intercuts them, sometimes in very quick shots, to make the theme and the connections clearer.

All this sounds tricky, even gimmicky, but the filmmakers (the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer) work very hard to keep the stories coherent. The nuclear plant story, put together by Tykwer, is probably the most coherent because it uses the familiar framework of a 70s paranoid thriller (think The Parallax View (1973) or Klute (1970)) to tell of a reporter (Halle Berry) who uncovers a vast conspiracy that involves the purposeful sabotage of a new nuclear facility.

When I broke at the ninety minute mark the first night, this section played like the mutant spawn of The China Syndrome (1979)and Silkwood  (1982). I didn’t expect the second half to go well, especially after the intrepid heroine’s car is forced to plummet into a lake by a shadowy assassin (Hugo Weaving) employed by the shadowy nuclear plant.

Let’s pause and expand on the idea of nuclear energy as a villainous force. There’s no particular reason to get exercised by movie ideas like atomic twisters or evil energy executives having likeable young people killed. Movies, especially thrillers and other genre movies, don’t particularly care if their treatment of a subject lacks objectivity or accuracy; audiences understand this because they quite reasonably want action and thrills, not an essay on the perils or benefits of nuclear energy. The villain is a villain – just give him or her silky diction, darkly ridiculous motivations and enough henchmen to get their shadowy cabal union cards. Then, let the mayhem commence.

But – resuming our review of the story -

Cloud Atlas did not choose nuclear energy as its viper du jour. Quite the opposite. <Note: spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now>.

An army friend (Keith David) of Berry’s deceased father (who was also a journalist) enters the story and reveals to Berry (she survives her trip into the water; surprised?) that the evil spider den is actually  occupied by disgruntled gas and oil executives who want nuclear power to fail because “it is the energy of the future.” These executives, led by a rotted looking Hugh Grant, are afraid of being rendered irrelevant. You could have knocked me over with a fuel rod at that revelation, but there it is.

Cloud Atlas is meant to be taken fairly seriously while delivering a load of entertainment and a fortune cookie moral. I’m not underestimating the filmmakers’ desire to have of fun with the premise – they know that the movie’s busy narrative agenda is almost a parody of ambition, so why not add a little fun?

Tykwer achieves this by setting the nuclear/oil segment in the 70s and evoking the style of that period by aping the moviemaking techniques and ideas of the time. But the titles it is referencing were interesting, well-done thrillers, not fat slabs of cheese. Even The China Syndrome is genuinely suspenseful if fantastically mendacious. The decision to take this approach, which occasionally turns Halle Berry into Pam Grier’s karate chopping Foxy Brown, makes the irresponsibility of the segment really glare. Just because the nuclear energy industry is absolved of wrongdoing (whew!) and given a shout out doesn’t make the conceit less problematic.

So, the segment’s not free of problems, but it isn’t the second coming of The China Syndrome, either. is Cloud Atlas a good movie overall? Well, the comparison to Intolerance remains apt: like its 95 year old precursor, it’s big, often silly when it means to be serious and the treatment of the theme is very, very blunt.

But it is also gigantic in scope, shot through with narrative if not thematic ambition and extremely well performed (the actors in all their roles are fascinating to watch – some of it feels genuinely transgressive, especially in light of the Larry-to-Lana Wachowski transition). It is, like many recent movies, an audio-visual experience rather than an affecting piece of work. You may come out of it feeling pummeled by the propulsion of its imagery, but at least not too annoyed at the filmmakers for their rather cavalier treatment of the atom.

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With the opening of Pandora’s Promise Friday, let’s consider this movie week at NEI Nuclear Notes.

Comments

Cloud Atlas was one of my favorite films in 2012.

But it doesn't take a Sci Fi movie to tell you that the fossil fuel industry has always viewed the nuclear power industry as a long term threat to their trillions of dollars of investment in coal, gas, and oil.

Marcel F. Williams

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