Reviewer: Philip Price
Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy and Larry Wachowski
Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant
Released: 22nd February 2013
While I would certainly classify myself as a sci-fi nerd I don’t think I would place Cloud Atlas fully in that category. It is one of those movies that is hard to describe. I can’t imagine the pitch for it (which I guess is one reason it had to be financed by foreign investors) and to have such a grand idea condensed into a single cinema-going experience all seems to be a bit too much to feed in one serving. It is something that might have worked better, and would have likely benefited, from being a mini-series on HBO or something like that rather than having an audience sit through six elaborately detailed stories pushed together and feeling forced to connect what it attempts to deliver in theme. That being said, the themes this film does concern itself with mixed with several of the individual stories that are ambitious in their own way and are then layered with others combine to create an impact that will leaving you feeling as if you truly have witnessed something special, if not at least very stimulating. I cannot say thatCloud Atlas will be for everyone, in fact, I can certainly understand where many people would have issues with the film. Whether it be that it is simply too confusing without being compelling enough to hold their attention or that for all its big ideas, in the end, it feels rather simplistic. I would understand and to a certain degree, I would concur with those points. Still, this movie is far too ambitious, far too unique to be dismissed for not being exactly what you expected or wanted it to be. Cloud Atlas is a sprawling epic that not only delves into several subjects but wants to make us think and speculate as much as it wants to entertain. It is a rarity and for that, I appreciate every minute it gave me.
Beginning in the nineteenth century in the South Pacific and venturing as far as a post apocalyptic future at an unspecified date, the film spans such a time period it is first difficult to even grasp how such things could be connected, much less influenced and before we even reach the title screen you will likely be more lost than you care to deal with. Getting past this initial confusion is going to be tough in any audience members mind, but letting that set in will eventually lead to a mindset of discovery that is more than rewarding. I have read a good section of the novel on which this is based (I didn’t finish it as I originally hoped, but seeing the film may actually help my experience when finishing it) and it is a challenging idea to wrap your head around, much less follow along with. When dropped in the middle of an individual story you naturally get wrapped up in the conflict and characters involved, but the lingering mystery of how what is happening here might have an after affect or leave an imprint on what is occurring in the following tale is what really intrigues. This is where the movie has its hook and also in the well publicized fact that several actors play multiple roles throughout each of the six stories. What is enduring about what some might call a gimmick though is that these actors are not simply playing dress up for the fun of it they are playing a very specific set of characters in each story so as to emphasize the subtle connections and reflections of each life and how it echoes throughout history and into the future. Whether it be in the role they play in the world, the mistakes they make, or even the actions they take that might forever determine or at least set a course that might leave their imprint on the world and society. In short, we are affected by those who came before us and we affect those who come after us.
The first people we meet in 1850 are Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an American lawyer on a ship back to San Francisco who comes into contact with a Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) and a slave tribe that figures into a revelation that changes Mr. Ewing’s destiny or guides him towards his fate (however you prefer it). The next is set in 1931 where Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a young English musician, finds work as a kind of apprentice for aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) and finds a copy of Ewing’s journal on his new employers bookshelf. Frobisher has a lover who he writes letters to in keeping him up with his life named Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy). The next story set in 1975 concerns journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigating a nuclear power plant and its potential threat where she is tipped off by one of their respected physicists, Sixsmith. This relays to the next story, set in the present day, when an elderly publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) receives a manuscript of Rey’s adventures in the mail. Cavendish is placed, against his will in a nursing home his brother owns and is unable to escape. A film is made of this unfortunate adventure and is seen by Sonmi 451 (Doona Bae) who is essentially a clone and a servant in Korea in the near future. With the help of Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess again) Sonmi rebels against the totalitarian society and in doing so becomes a Christ-like figure for future generations. This carries over into the final story at an undetermined point in the future in a post-apocalyptic, primitive society where Zachry (Hanks) is visited by Meronym (Berry) one of the few people left in the technologically advanced civilization, and takes her to where she needs to go to get back to her people and save Zachry’s.
While all of this mumbo jumbo talk that might sound too artsy and philosophical for a standard fun time at the movies is what made the film so engaging for me personally, what makes it an experience is that it is not just another film, it is an ambitious undertaking that deserves to be seen. I can admit it has its faults throughout, yet even with these I cannot help but to feel that the spectacle outdoes the concerns. That despite the structure and all its obvious complications each story also propels the next forward. There are hiccups if you will and each story certainly owes a bit to a certain genre, but they do all reflect one another and come to a connection which leads to a culmination that in itself is very exciting. They are not directly linked to one another, which is refreshing, but instead leave small fingerprints on the next story that binds them, that sees why history repeats itself. That sees us never really learning from one generation to the next, but instead thinking we know better only to eventually come undone. Just as it did before. Directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, play with the books essential themes of slavery in all senses of the word, which in turn reflects how as the world ages we as a society struggle for change but don’t necessarily like to accept it. They do this by using the actors playing multiple characters trick to emphasize connections and sometimes having the same actor play the hero in one story while being the villain in another. Each performance if fine, serves its purpose, but none of them stand out and all of them seem overshadowed by the “bigness” that the film is attempting to convey. At the very least, Cloud Atlas is an experiment in trying to decode our own world through the several it creates here. It can be brought down to that simple idea but the movie in itself is as big as the ideas it is attempting to convey. Cheers to those who had the gall to go for it.
On a side note, many moviegoers will like to deduce the perceived complexities of this movie into a single idea or sentence. It is easy to do that, it is convenient to bring it down to simple terms so that the mind will be able to digest it better. That is fine, and as I said before there are certainly a number of other issues with the film that I found to be somewhat frustrating as well as others that I would have liked to have seen improved before setting it loose upon the world, but to reduce such an ambitious undertaking to a simple message is slightly insulting. Yes, the ideas themselves may not be as new or revolutionary as I would have liked or even expected them to be, but is there a new story to tell at all? Are we not out of fresh ideas and on to the fact it is the way we tell it, how we convey it not the story we are telling itself? You can say that Cloud Atlas simply comes to the conclusion that “we are all connected” without giving it any more credit, but the way in which the directors, writers, and actors have chosen to deliver this story is what makes the film not only something epically unique, but also something that deserves to be regarded as more than a movie. It delivers the idea that we are all connected with mythical ideas, existential questions that are always better left lingering than when attempted to be answered, and a scope that matches such claims. It will test your patience. It will not connect with many. For the fans of it though, we could not appreciate more everything that has at least been done right in its production.