Hidden Gems: Cloud Atlas
By Kyle Lee
November 10, 2019
Roger Ebert opened his review of Cloud Atlas by saying “Even as I was watching ‘Cloud Atlas’ the first time, I knew I would need to see it again. Now that I've seen it the second time, I know I'd like to see it a third time — but I no longer believe repeated viewings will solve anything.” He went on to talk about the mysteries of the movie, how it was tricky and enigmatic. I only kind of agree with him. When I first watched Cloud Atlas I was blown away by the ambition of the thing. While it’s certainly difficult to connect every strand of every story to each other, I am not particularly bothered to do such a thing, and so am not disturbed by unconnected strands. Like Ebert, I knew I was watching greatness the first time I watched this movie. At one point I thought how poetic and beautiful an ending a certain scene would make for the movie, even if it would leave lots of unanswered questions, only to check the time and realize I was almost squarely halfway through the movie’s nearly 3 hour runtime. I then got even more excited, because that told me there was so much more in store for my viewing pleasure.
Cloud Atlas was a book written in 2004 by English author David Mitchell. Even Mitchell said the book was unfilmable. It’s a bit like a Russian doll, a bit like a mosaic. It contains six stories, each of which are experienced by their characters, and read or watched by characters in the other stories; through journals, love letters, movies, and more. How to even structure such a movie? The book doesn’t cross cut between the stories, instead splitting them up into two parts, one told in the first half of the book and the other in the second half. If you think of the stories as being numbers, the book is structured like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. You couldn’t structure a movie like that. Even in three hours that would mean the audience is still meeting new characters an hour and a half into the thing. And you wouldn’t want to split them up into a 6 part miniseries, as that would lose the impact of the interconnectivity of the story, the layered themes and repeating metaphors. So what to do?
The movie was written and directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, who rapidly intercut the stories throughout the movie, to the point that it seems they are always in motion of telling each of the six stories. It was a bold choice. It’s hard enough telling one story well, but to try and tell six stories essentially simultaneously seems inviting failure to me. Instead it’s brought off beautifully thanks I’m sure in part to editor Alexander Berner, but I give the most credit to the directors. I’ve not seen much from Tom Tykwer, despite him having made many acclaimed movies. I was not much a fan of The Wachowskis before this. I thought Bound was okay, but I was one of the seemingly few left unimpressed by The Matrix movies, then hated Speed Racer. But here, I am overwhelmed by the filmmaking guts to even try making this movie the way they did, on the budget they did (roughly $130-150 million, though if you’d told me the budget was $400 million I would believe it). This is filmmaking, both on a technical and storytelling level, of the absolute highest possible order.
I’ll attempt some plot description, to give myself a bit of structure here. The first of the stories (chronologically) concerns Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an American lawyer in 1849 whom we follow as he meets a Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) and sets sail on a business deal for his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving).
The next story is that of struggling young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), as he writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) detailing his working relationship with aging former genius composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent).
The third of the stories concerns journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she works to uncover a scandal involving energy companies fighting for the future of energy in 1973 San Francisco. She’s aided by a much older Sixsmith, who works for the energy company, as well as by Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks again), while being pursued by a hitman hired by the company (Hugo Weaving again).
The fourth is a modern day story, set in 2012 (when the movie came out) London. Book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again) makes a lot of money off of a memoir by gangster Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks again), but doesn’t pay the Hoggins family their cut of the profits and instead tries to take a loan out from his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), who tricks Cavendish into committing himself to a high security nursing home run by the evil Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving again), in retaliation for Cavendish’s affair with his wife Georgette (Ben Whishaw again).
The fifth story, probably my favorite, takes place in the year 2144 in Neo Seoul. Sonmi-451 (undoubtedly a reference to Fahrenheit 451, one of the great works of dystopian science fiction), played by the tremendously talented Korean actress Doona Bae, is a “fabricant”, a clone used for menial labor as a fast food server. Her friend Yoona-939 (Zhou Xun) disobeys orders one day and is murdered. Sonmi is then approached by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess again), who tells her he thinks she can change the world and wants to help.
The final story is that of Zachry (Tom Hanks again), a poor superstitious tribesman living in a valley in the year 2321, “after the fall.” The valley is visited by Meronym (Halle Berry again), a woman who comes using advanced technology left over from before the “old uns” died off. Zachry must fight against a cannibalistic tribe (led by an unrecognizable Hugh Grant, again), as well as the devilish figure that keeps appearing to him that Zachry calls Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving again), who whispers all the dark thoughts into his ear that he may or may not act on.
So you can see that any one of those could’ve made for a fascinating movie on their own. But what ties the stories together are repeated themes of authoritarian power being exerted over people and the revolutionaries who fight back in various ways, slavery, oppression, double crosses, collective memory, dreams, longing for love and connection, the power of love to overcome almost anything, including time and space. And so much more. This is a movie rich with everything you could want in a work of art. I’ve seen it three or four times now and notice new things, feel new things, every time. There is a recurring birthmark on the main character of each story. What does it mean? I’ve always assumed that it marked the same soul, so that although nearly every actor shows up in every story, they’re not playing the same character, or even the same soul. But you could also take the view that it’s a simple visual way of tying things together a bit. If you’re a person who thinks the actors are playing the same characters throughout each story, then that would point to how if we are reincarnated that we may be a villain in this life, a senator another time, a slave in another, a hero in a different story. I think Cloud Atlas works in each of those readings.
The actors are universally phenomenal in their many roles. The makeup, hair, and costuming that helps them transform in each story is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Sometimes it’s obvious who’s under the makeup, and honestly even with that praise I gave, the makeup can be distracting sometimes but I still roll with it. The movie got into a bit of controversy when it came out, namely the use of “yellow face” to have white actor Jim Sturgess play the future Asian man Hae-Joo. I am sensitive to the plights of Asian representation on screen and the dangers of the historic use of yellow face, black face, brown face, and other ways any number of racial groups have been ridiculed, put down, and more. Here though, I think the criticism is completely off base. First of all, the makeup is not used to turn anyone into a hateful stereotype. Yes, Jim Sturgess as well as Hugo Weaving, James D’Arcy, and Keith David play Asian characters. But what about everyone else? Doona Bae plays her normal Asian self, as well as a Mexican woman in one story and a white woman in another. Halle Berry plays a slave, a white Jewish woman, her normal looking self, and a male Asian doctor in Neo Seoul. Ben Whishaw plays a woman in one story. Hugo Weaving plays a white man, a white woman, an Asian man, and a green skinned demon. Zhou Xun plays a fabricant Asian woman, as well as Tom Hanks’s sister in the far future. So many actors play across races and even genders, and with reason, I think. David Mitchell has said that the book is about reincarnation and the universality of human nature, with the title referencing a changing landscape (the clouds) over manifestations of fixed human nature (the atlas). It’s not just a weird fun thing to do to have these actors play all kinds of dress up, it’s for the thematic purpose of the movie. To show how connected we all are, no matter what we look like on the outside. I would hate for anyone to have been offended by this movie, but I feel their outrage might’ve been misguided here.
Another criticism I’ve seen of the movie, more like a ridiculing really, is the dialog in the far future story. It’s stylized pidgin English with a lot of slang. People will sometimes laugh at Hanks and Berry talking about “the true-true”, but I don’t see why. The dialog is stylized in each of the stories, even if it is the most noticeably different in that section. This is supposed to be “after the fall”, these people are not us, they weren’t raised in our society with our language. They would talk differently. It may be distracting, and I would even encourage people to put the subtitles on for the movie, as I found it helped me keep up with the conversations easier, but I don’t see it as laughable. It feels like the true-true to me.
Cloud Atlas was a polarizing movie for both critics and audiences. It didn’t even make back its budget at the box office (where conventional wisdom says you need to double your budget to cover marketing and other costs before you start making money). While it was loved by some critics like Ebert, who gave it 4/4 stars, others like Mark Kermode called it "an extremely honourable failure, but a failure", some were even harsher, as both The Village Voice and Time Magazine named it the worst movie of 2012. In my book Cloud Atlas is not just a great movie, but one of the greatest of all movies. I have previously placed it as my #28 movie, when I sat down to create a top 50 movies of all time list, but I think now that that is far too low. I don’t know where I would place it after staying up until 2 in the morning to watch it again last night, but I’d place it much higher. Other movies should aspire to this level of complexity, humor, acting, heart, and impeccable filmmaking craft. And although it is widely known for a variety of reasons, I felt like I needed to add Cloud Atlas here to my list of Hidden Gems, to maybe give it some more of the endless love it deserves.