Movie Review: Cloud Atlas
By Matthew Huntley
November 1, 2012
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.