Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi, Adventure Rated: R Released on: October 26, 2013 Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, & Tom Tykwer Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, etc.
Cloud Atlas, I quickly discovered, was not a movie that I could watch while doing something else on my computer, even though I had already read the novel upon which it was based. It’s the kind of thing that engenders a very wide range of reactions, all mostly deserved. Bewilderment, loathing, and derision are among them, to be sure, but so are admiration, outpourings of in-depth analysis, and even expressions of love. I think I fall more on the latter side than the former. In any case, I would say it is a movie that almost everyone should watch and come up with their own take-away. It certainly has a little something for everybody!
David Mitchell’s much-acclaimed novel serves as the basis for this film, which interweaves six different stories taking place in six different periods of history, ranging from the mid-1800s to the post-apocalyptic 2321. Each of these stories feels very much like the author and the directors splashing around inside a different genre, but thematically all of the stories feel linked. Records of earlier stories tend to pop in later ones, and in addition to re-using the same group of actors (Hanks, Berry, Weaving, Sturgess, and Hugh Grant appear in all six stories, other actors appear in several of them) the movie shows these relationships by cutting between similar “beats” in different stories. For example, at one point it concentrates on the reporter played by Halle Berry receiving crucial information from a security officer played by Keith David, only to cut to Bae’s clone encountering a resistance leader played by David who opens her eyes to the truth of her situation. Often the filmmakers will let one character talk over action taking place in a different stories, drawing further parallels.It has Jim Broadbent puttering around the Scottish countryside in a comedy about old people. It has Jim Sturgess starring in an exciting sea-faring yarn. It has Doona Bae starring as a clone in an oppressive future dystopia. It has Halle Berry running around inside a 1970s-era thriller. It has Ben Whishaw trapped by society in a period piece about classical music and social mores; and it even has Tom Hanks climbing a Hawaiian volcano after the apocalypse while the devil (Hugo Weaving) talks to him. It also has pretty much all of these actors playing multiple characters, of differing ages, often of several different races, real and imaginary, while wearing mounds of makeup of varying qualities. Many viewers justifiably found this distracting, and the viewing public at large seems to (for the most part) have rejected the movie for this reason and perhaps others. Of course, it’s also three hours long, highly symbolic, and not a name brand, so there’s that, too.
The film was co-written and directed by Lana and David Wachowski, directors of the Matrix Trilogy, along with their partner Tom Tykwer, a German director still best known in America for his highly-influential debut, Run Lola Run. The team raised over $100 million from private (mostly European) investors after Warner Bros. pulled out, making Cloud Atlas one of the most expensive “independent” films ever made. The directing duties were completely split, with the Wachowskis and Tykwer filming three of the six stories each in different places with different crews. For me they managed to fit the various stories together fairly seamlessly… I was never confused about what was going on. But I tend to be a bit of a plot savant, if I do say so myself, in the sense that I can’t recall ever finding a movie or TV show genuinely “confusing.” If that is in fact a feeling you experience on a regular basis, I have a feeling you will pretty definitely experience it here.
Particularly because the filmmakers chose to reuse the same troop of actors in every story, mostly using make-up to bridge the very wide character gaps. In some ways the movie plays as a bit of an actor’s dream, and you can tell Tom Hanks in particular is having an absolute ball in roles that run the gamut from hero to villain to insane Chav author. But not only are the mounds of make-up possibly distracting, sometimes they very plainly aren’t very convincing. Halle Berry mostly pulls off being a middle-aged white lady, but not so much being an old Korean man. While young Korean actress Doona Bae mostly pulls off an angry Hispanic lady she is unconvincing as a white American belle from the mid-1800s. Hugo Weaving is asked to play both a woman and some sort of future mixed-race “pureblood,” while Hugh Grant is cast as both a Maori slavedriver and a crazy future cannibal. One can argue about the wisdom or appropriateness of having actors playing characters of differing races all over the place, though I would say that if everybody from all races is doing it in the same movie I’m more cool with it than I might be otherwise. But the make-up does vary wildly in quality. For whatever reason, the one thing Hollywood has not yet been able to do convincingly is aging make-up. There does seem to be a method to the madness, however, as the actors tend to play characters occupying similar roles in each story. Susan Sarandon (yes, she’s here too) appears several times as a nurturing figure, while Hugo Weaving’s characters tend to represent the constraints of society that the various heroes push against.
So, you might be tempted to ask, why does the movie DO any of this? What is the point of this crazy exercise? As an amalgam, Cloud Atlas certainly has a series of overarching ideas and themes. The most prominent seems to be, as the author Mitchell has stated, the way that human beings prey on one another, in different shapes and guises and in different situations. From slaves in the 1800s to homosexuals in the 1930s to clones in the future. Cloud Atlas also seems to be very concerned with our relationship with fate and whether we choose to push against obstacles or be obstructed by them. Tom Hanks’ characters in particular range from terrible people to heroes over the course of the film, but his heroes have the opportunity to be terrible people and manage to make the right decision. In each story there tend to be ascents and descents, whether it’s a character getting chucked unceremoniously off a roof or getting their car rammed off a bridge or if they’re climbing a volcano or the main mast of a ship. In the end, the movie seems to be saying, love can overcome the constraints of society, even if those constraints seem to destroy us. These themes are all explored throughout each story, but I would submit that they are stated most baldly in the far future story starring Hanks as a backwards Hawaiian villager and Berry as the advanced “Prescient” who asks for his help. There the humans literally prey on other humans, Weaving is literally the devil, and love literally overcomes all.
So, in a 2013 full of movies that tend to be reminiscent of each other, and not in a good way, it might be worth it to check out one of the more interesting films on 2012 now that it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. You might not end up loving Cloud Atlas like I did, but I think that if you’ll give this dense cinematic symphony a chance, you’ll at the very least find it worth thinking about more than your usual movie. Perhaps not the most ringing endorsement for many, but for me it certainly is.