– Summary –
Director : Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Wishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant.
Approx Running Time : 172 Minutes
Synopsis: Six interwoven stories, across six vastly different time periods (and often, on different planets), tell of humanity’s interconnectedness, and how an act of kindness can ripple through eternity, affecting those even in the far flung future.
What we think : Staggering, hugely entertaining time-bending head-scratcher of the highest order, Cloud Atlas is a film which will inevitably confound and confuse a lot of people. The sextet of stories, all performed by the same cast throughout (albeit in differing roles and often under swatches of prosthetics) are largely intriguing, although sometimes the film isn’t as profoundly clever or revelatory as it likes to think it is. Admittedly handsomely mounted, blisteringly directed and well acted by all involved, Cloud Atlas is an intellectual Moebius strip of a film, one which should cause conversation and argument over its very meaning and purpose; I’m hard pressed to say it’s a great film from merely a single viewing, but I think time might reward the Wachowski/Tykwer combo as a future cult classic of the genre.
For a generation or more, people have tried to fathom the unquantifiable mysteries of the Rubick’s Cube. Some can solve the puzzle easily, while others, such as myself, are reduced to peeling the colored stickers off and reattaching them “correctly”, albeit through cheating. Annual competitions are held to find those who can do so the fastest. Imagine being the dude who designed the Rubick’s Cube, knowing the complexities of such a puzzle would reverberate down from father to son, mother to daughter, as if it were a primal rite of passage to be given one of the tiny cubes as a test. Now, imagine a film designed like a Rubick’s Cube: Cloud Atlas is one such film. It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma etc etc, a mystery which bears repeated viewings in order to capture its full magnificence. Much like the Rubick’s Cube, some will “get” Cloud Atlas, and some will not. It’s not a problem if you don’t find anything wonderful about Cloud Atlas as a film, and I’ve a fair bet going that a lot of people – probably casual film fans who despise things like “creativity” and “intelligence” in their movies – will outright hate it. Ostensibly, it’s a confusing narrative trying to achieve something that might just confuse a bunch of folks. But for those willing to invest some time and patience, to have a shot at understanding what the film is trying to say about you and I – humanity – then there’s some nuggets of gold to be found within the opening and closing credits of this magnificent, achingly beautiful film.
Trying to parenthesize the story of Cloud Atlas to a single paragraph is an impossible task. The scope of the film, set across six time frames, and featuring a vast roster of characters, is initially bewildering (the term “confusing” is most likely to be used, mainly by cinematic heathens!), but the general gist is that an old man, sitting on a beach, attempting to recount the story of humanity’s rise and fall between the years 1849, and some time in the 22nd Century. The first story arc sees a young American lawyer, Adam Ewing, aboard a boat bound for the US who befriends a free slave, and must survive an attempt on his life as one of the ships passengers tries to poison him. The second arc, set in Scotland in 1936, involves young musician and amanuensis Robert Frobisher, who finds work with aging composing legend Vyvyan Ayrs as he works on his latest piece; Ayrs wants to steal a composition Frobisher has been working on himself, and he recounts the events leading up to his suicide to his lover, a young Rufus Sexsmith. The third arc is set in San Francisco in 1973, where a female reporter uncovers a plot to prevent the USA from turning to nuclear power, via a now-older Sexmith, before finding herself being hunted by an assassin sent to get rid of her at the behest of the power company involved. The fourth story is set in the UK in 2012, and involves a publisher sent packing to a military-style old folks home by his brother, as payback, after a book he publishes suddenly becomes hugely successful. The fifth story is set in New Seoul, Korea, in 2144, and sees a genetically engineered fabricant become free from her servitude thanks to an undercover resistance leader hoping to make the world a better place. And finally, in the far future, after humanity has “fallen”, a semi-primitive society meets a clan of humans still clinging to old technology, who hope to send a message to other human worlds in order to make contact again.
While it might all sound a bit far fetched, and certainly like one thing has nothing to do with the other, the fact is that Cloud Atlas manages to not only interweave each storyline successfully through emotional arcs, but convinces us that each actor in each story is playing a different role throughout. Tom Hanks has a part to play in every segment of Cloud Atlas, as differing (and often unrecognizable) characters (including a tribesman haunted by a demonic figure whispering evil things into his ears at crucial junctures), as does Halle Berry and an astonishing Hugh Grant. Grant in particular morphs into other characters so convincingly I had to check out the Wiki page to catch all the stuff he was doing. Jim Broadbent plays largely the same type of character throughout the film (which is pretty much the same character he plays in all his films, really!) and is especially convincing as the 2012 Arc’s Tim Cavendish, trying to escape an old folks home in his advancing years. Hugo Weaving essays the films’ major villain characters (his creepy screen magnetism is at its high point in the 2321 future Earth demon figure), while Ben Wishaw and Jim Sturgess bring youthful energy to their primary roles of Frobisher and 2144’s Hae-joo Chang respectively. But the film is largely stolen by Doona Bae’s performance (among others) as Sonmi-451, the freed fabricant (a bit like the Replicants of Blade Runner, I guess) who becomes a kind of messianic figure for future Earth as she sees what humanity has become. Hugh Grant delivers some unbelievably good performances as a variety of sleazy, slimy, evil, horrendous characters (didn’t know he had it in him!), and Wachowski alum Hugo Weaving comes along with two significant roles – a 1970’s hitman intent on offing Halle Berry’s reporter character, and the demonic voice of hate and fear in Tom Hanks’ mind in the post-apocalypse era.
The scripting on this film feels very literary. There’s a lot of big words in Cloud Atlas, and a whole shit-ton of big ideas. The entire film is like the Architect’s pretentious speech in Matrix Reloaded, only this film makes a heap more sense and doesn’t conclude with the hero just walking out: Cloud Atlas is highbrow science fiction, and pulls no punches about that fact. The screenplay even invents a bastardized version of English used by the world of the most future of all presented here – post-apocalypse Earth has basing words, but the meanings have become almost recursively redundant; the language feels familiar yet it isn’t (if that makes sense) and it took me a little while to really get the hang of understanding Hanks and Berry’s conversations in their scenes together here. The script, by the Wachowski’s and Tykwer (who co-directed the film together), is cleverly devised, sharp as a razor and delivers a layered, onion-skin revelation of understanding as the movie progresses. Meta-remarks about flash-forwards and flashbacks, by Broadbent’s aging Cavendish, preempt a lot of bile about the zipping between story threads, undermining the argument against this kind of storytelling by sheer force of will in that the movie works because of this structure, rather than in spite of it. A key element of the film, the New Seoul arc involving Sonmi-451, seems a little out of place at first, until plot threads begin to reveal themselves midway through the film. It’s a clever story idea (based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, which was considered by most fans to be nigh unfilmable – something said of Tolkein’s work too!) and the Wachowski’s and Tykwer work hard to make it all seem effortless. The balance of smart story and visual tenacity is spot on in Cloud Atlas, and as I mentioned before, it’s the kind of film which will require multiple viewings.
However – and this is a big however – the film does have its flaws, and most of them involve the attempt to link each story within the contextual framework of the film overall. Some of the stories are stronger than others, and the film does lean on the two futuristic arcs more than those set in years gone by. The arc involving Sonmi-451 is particularly stylish, and almost overcomes its inherent faults in that it feels like a film externally of the overall movie it’s in, but the slam-bang visual effects and quiet, almost inaudible performance by Doona Bae contrast too heavily to ensure adequate audience appreciation. The Hanks/Berry arc set after human apocalypse is good enough to warrant a film on it’s own (Mel Gibson must surely have rung his lawyers with the segments’ similarities to Apocalypto), and the actors do a really good job ensuring we can understand their “future speak” language, but it’s the stuff involving Ben Wishaw and Jim Sturgess as primary characters – Wishaw as Frobisher and Sturgess as the lawyer being poisoned on the ship home – that provides the weakest of the plot devices in the movie. That’s not to say Wishaw or Sturgess are lacking in their performances, but their stories aren’t particularly interesting. Jim Broadbent, as the recalcitrant publisher sent to the retirement home, nails his part (still think he should play Doctor Who at some point) and provides more than a few laughs in what is the funniest arc in the film. Halle Berry’s reporter-digging-for-a-scoop arc feels more like a noir detective story than a particularly evocative science fiction – Berry gives it her all, as does a terrific Hugh grant, and equally so Keith David, but the story feels like it’s out of place in Cloud Atlas.
That’s the point of the problems, I think: you either “get” into the stories presented, or you don’t, and perhaps more problematic is that if you don’t find one of the stories particularly engaging, it runs the risk of reducing your enjoyment of the rest. While the characters and stories are inherently linked through the unexplained “shooting star” tattoo shown on specific characters as the film progresses, the exact reason for their euphonious markings is never explained. I’m not sure if the Wachowski’s and Tykwer ever really wanted to explain what was going on, or why it was necessary to have the interwoven stories in place in the first place, but their desire to remain obscure in purpose more than undercuts the tension and the awe experienced while watching. I wanted to see some kind of resulting conclusion to each individual arc that bound them all together in a cohesive way, yet the film remains content to simply just let each one sit there, flummoxing the audience with perceived intellectualism where only inadequate explanation results.
Overlooking the film’s ambitious storytelling method, there are definite elements of greatness within Cloud Atlas. The Wachowski’s vision in their filmed segments (the 19th century arc, and the two future tales) is sublimely exquisite: Neo Seoul is a dazzling cityscape of technology and hopelessness, an almost Blade Runner-ish social order with a gulf splitting the higher and lower that is insurmountable until Sonmi-451 arrives from her indentured servitude, whereas the post-apocalyptic world in which English has transformed into a bizarre pigeon-version and savagery has returned, is evoked with big-budget widescreen storytelling, allowing the viewer to soak it all in and really feel like a part of the story. Tykwer’s segments, involving Wishaw’s bisexual Frobisher, the Halle Berry reporter segments, and the humorous 2012-set story, seem more lyrical, more whimsical than the Wachowski segments – that being said, there’s no one single aspect to any of the arcs which gives away their dual-director authorship with any significance. The film is exceptionally crafted as a work of fiction; six complete worlds are rendered with a realism that’s astonishing considering the troubled pre-production that Cloud Atlas underwent.
At times, Cloud Atlas teeters on the brink of true greatness. The precision film-making and adept storytelling methods the film employs, mixed with a more cerebral central concept than the majority of modern blockbusting features, allows Cloud Atlas to straddle a variety of genres with relative ease and the occasional gob-smacking awesomeness. The cast are exceptional – even in smaller roles – and the film is relatively free of fat or frivolity. Some might baulk at its attempt to intersperse cosmic significance in the actions of those throughout time, and there’s a vague whiff of existential reincarnation about it all, but the brass-tacks version is that Cloud Atlas is a dense, definitive film that deserves your attention. Personally, I thought it was a terrific attempt to step and think outside the box, and for that I applaud what the Wachowski/Tykwer team achieved; it’s a film that will require multiple viewings to truly appreciate what they’re trying to say here. Casual viewers are likely to be bored or confused, but those willing to put in the effort to persevere will most likely find something to enjoy.