cause this is going to be a long one… You’ve been warned.
There are movies with large ambitions that dare to think big and go outside the box, and then there is Cloud Atlas. This is a movie so sprawling, drunk on ides and visuals that the three hours it takes to tell its various stories, which don’t always connect neatly or even at all, feels like only the beginning. It may not be a perfect film, but in terms of sheer scope, ambition, passion and craft on display – it’s a glorious, once in a lifetime kind of achievement.
There are six stories which overlap in actors and themes, detailing the interconnectedness of the human race, its penchant for violence within itself and to those it deems “Others” and, of course, in reincarnation, predestinated outcomes and love. If it remains a little frayed around the edges, if connections are a little sloppy, that’s to be forgiven, because it somehow, through sheer force of will and alchemy I guess, does work.
Five actors play various roles in all six stories (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving), in some they are but small cameos, in others supporting roles and the leads in the rest. This isn’t just merely an excuse for actorly showboating, and mercifully none of them resort to “Look ma! I’m acting!”/Brechtian-levels of performance side-show caricatures, but a chance to craft human beings who have loved and fought and reconnected for several lifetimes.
I believe that every viewer will have their own personal connections and favorites among the six stories, and for me the best and most engaging where the ones set in 1936, 1973, 2144 and 2321, the last of which serves as a wraparound framing device. The 1849 story, which sees Jim Sturgess and Tom Hanks engage in a transatlantic journey from the Pacific Islands back to the civilization of home and the disturbing illness and conspiracies at play, isn’t terrible, but it didn’t have the resonance or interest that the others did. While Hanks delivers a strong performance, this section was marred by poor prosthetics which made Hanks look like a rubbery figure, undermining some of the menace of his character, and the less said about Susan Sarandon’s nose, the better.
And the 2012 story, humorous but not of a piece with the rest of the film, gives Jim Broadbent some excellent comedic beats to toy with. That he turns in such fine work isn’t surprising, but the whole storyline feels so light and inconsequential in comparison to the rest of the film. I suppose a storyline with some levity was necessary so Cloud Atlasdidn’t entirely sink into Big Ideas speak and visual inventiveness, but something more at stake than accidentally being locked in a retirement home and causing chaos would have been nicer, and probably made the whole segment cohere with the rest better.
And now on to the four sections which struck me for various reasons.
The segment in 1973 features a reporter (Halle Berry) investigating claims that a nuclear power plant was unsafe. The tone and style harken back to films like All the President’s Men or China Syndrome. Like the other segments that I liked the most, I felt this one had enough story and merit to be its own feature. Throughout Cloud Atlas one of the actor I was most surprised by was Halle Berry, to call her career uneven is an understatement. After championing her work in Monster’s Ball, Their Eyes Were Watching God orIntroducing Dorothy Dandrige, and seeing her career devolve into Catwoman, Gothikaand Perfect Stranger, to choose just three of a terrible post-Oscar career, I was ready to call it a wash. But she turns in solid work here, I’m not sure if this segment or the one set in 2321 features her best performance. There are a couple of weak spots in it, chiefly the makeup turning Doona Bae into elderly Mexican woman, it never looks natural or authentic, instead taking the form of large chunks of latex glued on to her. Luckily, she’s only briefly involved, and the rest of it succeeds admirably.
The post-civilization segment, 2321, could have easily failed, and I’m sure for a lot of people the complicated jargon and heavy patois will be too much. Yet I found it to be intoxicating. This is one segment where everything came together perfectly. The makeup which transforms Hugh Grant into a monstrous looking cannibal tribe leader is horrifying. Same goes for Hugo Weaving’s transformation into a green-skinned demonic being dressed in Victorian garb complete with a cockney accent who appear to only Tom Hanks’ character. His performance is terrifying and minimally acted when he could have gone so much bigger, which only makes his creature creepier.
The 2321 segment sees the rebuilding of society after the collapse. There are now two different levels, the higher class which lives in some kind of pristine, all-white futuristic cruise ship/space ship, and the dirty serfs who live in huts and have to contend with roving bands of cannibals and other tribes trying to pick fights. Halle Berry, the emissary from the stars hoping to find something from the top of the mountain near the village, and Tom Hanks, the village-man/love interest who helps her find it, have a surprisingly nice chemistry and, shockingly, prove to be credible as action heroes. Sure Berry has some history as an action heroine given her roles in Die Another Day and the X-Menfranchise, but her Storm mostly stayed off on the sidelines and Jinx, while played well and with a certain grasp of campy winks, was a poorly written character. Hanks, for his part, is mostly known as either a serious dramatic actor, or a loveable and warm presence from comedies like Big. To see them performing various action-movie feats, and not embarrass themselves, is a nice and unexpected treat.
Lastly, we come to the two segments which reverberated with me the most. The 1936 story sees Ben Whishaw, who had a great year between this and Skyfall, and James D’Arcy play lovers, who are, of course, doomed. Whishaw is a penniless musician who takes a job with Jim Broadbent’s elderly, nearly blind composer, helping to write down his melodies and sort out a piece he’s been struggling with. Told mostly through the correspondence between Whishaw and D’Arcy, it is a tender and heartbreaking portrait of a half-finished love affair.
Hopefully, if there’s any justice in the cinematic universe, Whishaw will come out of this experience with bigger opportunities for him in further films. He’s a wonderfully talented, and very attractive, sensitive-looking English soul. I bet, if Perfume is any indication, he could turn his looks and manners into some truly surprising performances in the future.
And, finally, the CGI-fest that is the 2144 segment. While it looks like the most expensive of the lot, it also has the most emotional destructive story. This one, more than any other, really hits home on the theme of the cruelty of man. It’s hard to describe the storyline without giving everything away, but I’ll do my best.
Jim Sturgess, attractive and charming, and Doona Bae get their biggest and best roles out the lot in this story, which sees a futuristic South Korea slowly being torn asunder from corrupt and disturbing business practices which pose the question of whether or not they’re ethical, moral and if we have a responsibility to clones. It’s an elastic premise which can be seen as a cipher for any number of civil rights issues. And that’s probably why, much like the 1936 story, it hit me the hardest. A full-length version of this film would be a 21st century Blade Runner, maybe even encroaching on darker, thornier subject matter and imagery. The makeup and CGI used to change around various Anglo actors in Asians gets a little distracting, some transition better than others, but, and I most comment on the stupid accusations of racism lodged at this film, I never found it be racist or mean-spirited.
It made logical sense for Halle Berry to be transformed into an elderly Asian man, a white Jewish woman, and so forth, to pick just one actor out of many. This is a film which shows us context and visual clues to trance the reincarnation of various souls throughout time. Of course the host body is going to take on various appearances and looks, and it would be distracting, and completely dismantle the concept, to have different sets of actors for each individual segment. Reusing the same performers in different makeups, races and genders echoes the point home for us in a quick and easy way. For people to not understand that basic concept, well, I just don’t really know what else to say. Looking for something that wasn’t there? Easily offended?
In a simplistic way, the stories connect very easily: The journal Sturgess keeps in 1849 is read by Whishaw in 1936 while he writes the “Cloud Atlas sextet.” This orchestral movement is heard by Berry in 1973, along with D’Arcy briefly appearing as the elderly version of his character from the 1936 segment. Berry’s storyline is turned into a novel, which Broadbent publishes in 2012. His ordeal in the nursing home is turned into a movie, which Bae watches in 2144. And, lastly, video messages and political texts that Bae delivered in 2144 are now considered holy works and gospel in 2321.
But that’s a very surface view of the film, the Reader’s Digest or Cliff’s Notes variation. There’s so much more to dine yourself upon in this film. That’s how I ended up writing a three-page Word document review about it. It’s a meat-and-potatoes/full course film. It might be a sloppy around the edges, but I’m thankful for the experience. Oscar worthy? In my opinion this should dominate the tech categories and possibly pick up a Best Picture nomination for sheer audacity and scope.