Most viewers will probably walk away from Cloud Atlas so perplexed and stupefied, they’ll think they need to see it again just to know what it’s about. That was my initial reaction, but after giving myself time to digest it, I realized it wasn’t that the film was difficult to comprehend, but that it was difficult for me to want to comprehend it. Technically and stylistically, this is one of the most daring and bold movies in recent memory; unfortunately, it’s not able to match that with substance. A lot of people will disagree with me on this, but I didn’t leave Cloud Atlas caring much about its themes or people. Luckily the film has other virtues to fall back on.
Movie Review: Cloud Atlas
By Matthew Huntley
November 1, 2012
Given the scope of what happens in it, it would seem overwhelming and futile to try and sum up Cloud Atlas in a single review, so allow me to provide you with just the broad strokes of its various plots. It’s based on the novel by David Mitchell and opens in the distant future as an old man with a birthmark resembling a shooting star and a scar on the left side of his face begins to tell a story, which eventually breaks off into another story, and then another, and another, until finally, there are six stories in all. These do not exist in the same time or space, and therefore do not run in parallel, but they are connected by their themes, characters and, to the audience, recognizable actors.
The first takes place in 1849 in the Pacific Islands, where an American notary named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) represents his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving) by overseeing a contract between him and a slave owner (Hugh Grant). While on the island, Adam witnesses the caning of a slave named Autua (David Gyasi) and is driven by his conscience to help him on his journey home. All the while, Adam is unknowingly poisoned by a devious doctor (Tom Hanks) who’s after his treasure chest full of gold.
Nearly a hundred years later, in early 1930s Europe, we meet a poor yet brilliant English musician named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who begins working as an amanuensis to a Belgian composer (Jim Broadbent). The composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, is considered a master, but Frobisher adds his own flavor to Ayrs’ latest work, the sound of which reverberates and plays a significant role throughout the interconnected narratives.
Frobisher’s story is relayed through letters to his lover, another man named Rufux Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), who in 1975 is a nuclear physicist living in San Francisco. Sixsmith meets a journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) in an elevator and steers her toward a conspiracy involving a power plant.
In 2012, Rey’s mystery finds its way to the desk of a British publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), who’s just represented a ruthless gangster and novelist named Dermot Hoggins (Hanks). After Hoggins throws a literary critic off a London skyscraper, his book flies off the shelves and Hoggins’ brothers and cohorts go after Cavendish for their share of the profits. Cavendish flees to Scotland and is inadvertently locked up in a retirement home against his will and kept under the watchful eye of a tyrannical nurse (Weaving).
In 22nd century Korea, in the new Seoul (the original succumbed to flooding), a genetically-engineered woman labeled Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona) is a server to the “all mighty consumer” at a fast food restaurant. In actuality, as we’re told by a freedom fighting soldier named Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), she serves a much higher purpose because she’s destined to expose the truth about the current totalitarian society to the masses. She recollects her story to an archivist as she awaits her execution.
The final story, at least chronologically, takes place on an island nation in a post-apocalyptic world, where Zachry (Hanks) is the member of a nomadic tribe. He’s visited by Meronym (Berry), one of the last survivors of an advanced society living in space. Meronym needs Zachry to guide her to the space station atop the island’s mountains so she can send a signal to her people. As he helps her, he’s hunted by a neighboring tribe and tempted by a devilish figure named Old Georgie (Weaving).
Now, if my brief summations of these stories have you asking, “Huh?”, then you’re not alone. I purposely left out details and mention of other characters simply because I didn’t want to get them wrong. There’s a lot to keep track of in Cloud Atlas, but it’s possible. In fact, while watching the film, it’s easy to see how events and people are connected, even though the filmmakers adamantly defy Hollywood’s conventional narrative structure. In terms of how it’s assembled, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like Cloud Atlas before, and although it borrows from films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner in terms of its action and vision, directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer lend it a distinct look and feel. Yet it’s not thrown together randomly and there’s a point to its aggregation, even if that point is rather obvious, which, according to Mitchell, symbolizes “the universality of human nature.” That message is driven into us throughout, perhaps too much.
On an emotional and excitable level, the film left me feeling cold and distant. It contains too many “regular” cinema moments, like standard chase scenes, shootouts, fights and love stories, all of which we’ve seen before. Given that the film has such a grand and magnificent scope structurally, I was hoping its smaller scenes would prove just as envelope-pushing. When you consider the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tykwer’s (Run Lola Run) previous films, we know they’re capable of delivering them.
I also sensed a hesitation from the filmmakers to fully trust the audience. As each of the stories progresses, it becomes more obvious what themes - love , murder, duplicity, sex, oppression, etc. - connect them all, but they take this sense of connectivity too far with the characters by re-using the same actors. This strategy seems like it was done strictly for the benefit of the audience so we’re able to follow along more easily. For instance, we can match up the white Halle Berry from 1931 with the black Halle Berry from 1975; or the bearded Tom Hanks from 1895 with the goatee/shaved head one from 2012; or the cross-dressed Hugo Weaving in 2012 with the satanic-looking one hundreds of years in the future. Shouldn’t the characters’ birthmarks and behavior be enough for us to discern them? Why not have the similarities of the characters from different times be decipherable through something other than the facial recognition of the performers? That would have made the film even more challenging and put it upon the audience to pay even closer attention.
Still, Cloud Atlas goes far, farther than most films even dream. The way it pushes cinema in a new direction architecturally alone makes it watchable. There’s so much to admire about it that my criticisms sometime seem trivial, even if I do believe they detract from the film’s entertainment and emotional value. Nevertheless, I would like to see more movies like this get made, but the sad thing is, I don’t see it happening right away. Cloud Atlas is so audacious it will likely fail commercially and be remembered only by a select group, at least for the time being. Coincidentally, this ties in with one of the movie’s themes and most resonating lines of dialogue. After one character reveals a hidden truth, another asks, “What if no one believes you?” To which the first character answers: “Somebody already does.” On a similar note, what if no one likes Cloud Atlas? Well, somebody already does, and even though it will be a while before a film like this gains traction and its ambitions become customary in Hollywood, I’m optimistic they will. Maybe not now, but eventually, and in the end, that’s what matters.