To what extent are our lives a singular existence? How does what one does at any singular moment in time impact the future? What does it mean to exist? These questions and more are addressed in the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s best-selling novel, Cloud Atlas.
It is nearly impossible to achieve a full comprehension of a film as staggeringly complex as Cloud Atlas in just one viewing; however, what can be conceived is that this film is certainly one of the most imaginatively delightful pieces of conceptually groundbreaking cinema that I have seen in a great while. Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski set their sights rather high with such an ambitious and daunting piece; and, while I was certainly skeptical about their ability to pull off a storyline as intricate and delicate as this, I would have to say that any missteps along the way can and should be overlooked.
Looking at the IMDb page for the film is about as overwhelming as the initially posed questions at the beginning of this review; however, once comfortably nestled in a theater chair, the overwhelming feeling comes from a rush of breathtaking filmography, beautifully structured characters, and a delicate balance of wit, human emotion, and provoked curiosity, not from confusion.
The beautifully woven stories that are presented in this film span six different locations and places in time, yet all intersect in ways that can’t really be described to someone who hasn’t seen it for themselves. In each story, (nearly) each actor plays a different character; and each time, one actor takes the lead as the story’s protagonist.
While some critics have expressed distress over the somewhat disparate story lines, they intersect not only by way of actor/character merging, but also by way of thematic content – most specifially slavery (by any definition), the human connection, as well as the deeper probing questions of life and existence. In any case, it is incredibly difficult to describe the jumpy nature of the fluid stories, so to break it down in a sensical way, I have ordered the stories chronologically:
The Pacific Islands, 1849: Young lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is making the voyage back home, and is unknowingly being poisoned by his doctor, Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks).
Cambridge, 1936: Up-and-coming young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) finds himself at odds with well-known composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), who threatens his future in the world of music by way of blackmail.
San Francisco, 1973: Investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) works to uncover a national conspiracy over nuclear power, after a chance meeting with Frobisher’s former lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
London, 2012: Book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a nursing home under the watchful eye of Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving) while on the run from a client’s gangster cronies.
Neo Seoul, 2044: “Fabricant” (a cloned slave) Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), lives in a consumer-fueled/controlled futuristic society. When Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) frees her from her dictated life, a revolution is sparked.
Undetermined, 106 Years “After The Fall”: Zachry (Tom Hanks) is a psychologically tormented villager in a post-apocalyptical society, who leads a woman from technologically advanced society (Halle Berry) through his cannibal-infested land.
What really blends these stories is the climactic balance that ebbs and flows like a tide, as the stories take cues from each other. While each story could be framed apart from the others, by way of character, plot structure, “resolution,” and even so far as genre, somehow they seamlessly transpire to form individual subplots that all join hands to tell a bigger story.
Above all, the actors in this movie provided the solid foundation that…I don’t want to say that it needed, because the movie manages to find a foothold based on other factors; in any regard, the movie certainly benefited from the solid acting talent. Tom Hanks reminds us of his remarkable ability to wholly consume his character, which is truly amazing, when you consider that he was six different characters in this movie.
I am overjoyed that Halle Berry has finally landed a role that is worth something to her career. For being such a high-profile actress, she hasn’t been in much to sustain her status as such; if anything, her roles in this movie will propel her to more great projects. Jim Broadbent always brings a great deal to the table, but shines in his role as Timothy Cavendish in the London storyline. Though his role as the protagonist begins shakily, it develops into one of my favorite pieces of the larger film.
Other standout performances came from Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, James D‘Arcy, and Susan Sarandon, who each gave their characters remarkable depth. Most unsuspecting to me was Hugh Grant, who took on the more physically-driven (versus verbally-driven) role as the head cannibal in the sixth story. Not surprising was the always stellar performance(s) by the impeccable Hugo Weaving. Most notable for me was the performance of Doona Bae, whose character had the most interesting story to tell.
Special effects are a large part of the futuristic plot lines, both digitally and by way of incredible makeup artistry. While these may have been a helpful addition at times, often, the enhancements (such as making white people’s eyes appear to be Asian) were incredibly distracting. Another creative decision I take issue with was the strange and thick accent in the sixth story line; difficult to understand the English dialect, which consisted of a lot of repeated words and awkward speech patterns. Subtitles would have been nice, but then again, I have admitted to my partial deafness, although other critics seem to take issue with this as well.
Though perhaps not 100% polished, the directors have presented us with an incredible feat of filmography, and I for one am quite impressed that they were able to pull it off as well as they did. Though there were a few minor slips along the way, their overall success on such a daunting task speaks volumes. I know for me, this will be a movie that requires a few viewings to really make all the intended connections and grasp everything to the fullest extent. If anything, this makes me determined to read the book, though such usually causes me to become more critical of the theatrical production. In any case, I expect many nominations for this film come awards time. You may not love it the first time around (it’s a cerebrally-required view – think Inception), and it’s not for the popcorn-flick crowd; still, it’s something that those who enjoy a well-executed feat of cinema will find incredibly well-worth the price of a ticket.
Cloud Atlas – 9/10