Director : Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenplay : Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski (based on the novel by David Mitchell)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Tom Hanks (Dr. Henry Goose / Hotel Manager / Isaac Sachs / Dermot Hoggins / Cavendish Look-a-Like Actor / Zachry), Halle Berry (Native Woman / Jocasta Ayrs / Luisa Rey / Indian Party Guest / Ovid / Meronym), Jim Broadbent (Captain Molyneux / Vyvyan Ayrs / Timothy Cavendish / Korean Musician / Prescient 2), Hugo Weaving (Haskell Moore / Tadeusz Kesselring / Bill Smoke / Nurse Noakes / Boardman Mephi / Old Georgie), Jim Sturgess (Adam Ewing / Poor Hotel Guest / Megan's Dad / Highlander / Hae-Joo Chang / Adam / Zachry Brother-in-Law), Doona Bae (Tilda / Megan's Mom / Mexican Woman / Sonmi-451 / Sonmi-351 / Sonmi Prostitute), Ben Whishaw (Cabin Boy / Robert Frobisher / Store Clerk / Georgette / Tribesman), Keith David (Kupaka / Joe Napier / An-kor Apis / Prescient), James D’Arcy (Young Rufus Sixsmith / Old Rufus Sixsmith / Nurse James / Archivist), Xun Zhou (Talbot / Hotel Manager / Yoona-939 / Rose), David Gyasi (Autua / Lester Rey / Duophsyte), Susan Sarandon (Madame Horrox / Older Ursula / Yusouf Suleiman / Abbess), Hugh Grant (Rev. Giles Horrox / Hotel Heavy / Lloyd Hooks / Denholme Cavendish / Seer Rhee / Kona Chief), Robert Fyfe (Old Salty Dog / Mr. Meeks / Prescient 1), Martin Wuttke (Mr. Boerhaave / Guard / Leary the Healer), Robin Morrissey (Young Cavendish)
The most maddening thing about Cloud Atlas, a truly ambitious collaboration between Andy and Lana (née Larry) Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, is not related to any difficulty involved in following its complex narrative structure of six “nested” stories spanning thousands of years that feature multiple characters played by the same actors, but rather how tantalizingly close it comes to being a truly sublime cinematic experience. There are indeed moments that are sublime, yet they never quite cohere into complete emotional engagement. The very size of the film and its narrative ambitions have a way of keeping us just at arm’s length, as if we are meant to appreciate its vastness without getting fully lost in it. The film is replete with gorgeous images, stocked with challenging philosophical issues (of the decidedly New Age-y variety, of course), and engages a wide range of tones, from the morbid to the comical, during its three-hour running time. Yet, as much as I loved parts of it, I couldn’t quite feel like I loved the whole of it.
Closely based on the 2004 novel by British author David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas has six loosely interconnected stories take place in six distinctly different time periods and locations: the 19th-century South Pacific, Belgium in the mid-1930s, San Francisco in the early 1970s, London in 2012, Korea in the mid 22nd-century, and an unnamed location somewhere on Earth in a more distant postapocalyptic future. Each of the stories features a wide range of characters played by a handful of recurring actors: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, James D’Arcy, and Hugh Grant, among others. Rarely do any of these actors look like their usual selves, as they are frequently encased in make-up and heavy prosthetics that change their age, race, and gender (at one point, for example, Berry plays a wrinkled Korean male surgeon, while Weaving dons some truly hideous drag to play a brutal nurse). For the most part, the make-up effects are convincing enough that, when pared with the generally fine performances by the game actors, we can forget who’s playing who and instead focus on the characters (of all the actors, Broadbent is the most successful in his various transformations, moving smoothly from a lecherous villain to an unlikely hero who looks like he stepped out of a Wallace and Gromit cartoon).
The film begins with Tom Hanks playing a scarred old shaman under a starry sky relating a tale to an offscreen audience, which establishes the film’s fascination with the process of how stories are passed from generation to generation. Unlike Mitchell’s novel, which unfolds the six storylines in largely linear fashion, the film version of Cloud Atlas skips and leaps from story to story, often in no obvious order and without any kind of consistent rhythm. At times it devotes significant and sustained screen time to a single narrative, while at other points it cuts back and forth between multiple narratives in montage fashion, drawing specific visual and thematic links.
In the first story, which takes place in the remote Chatham Islands in 1849, a young American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) comes to grips with the realities of the slave trade via his relationship with a stowaway Moriori slave while being betrayed by a larcenous doctor (Tom Hanks). The next story takes place in 1936 and involves a young English musician (Ben Whishaw) who leaves his lover (James D’Arcy) to work as an amanuensis for a brilliant, but cantankerous old composer (Jim Broadbent). In 1973 San Francisco, a crusading journalist (Halle Berry) gets trapped in an elevator with the musician’s now elderly lover, which leads her to investigate the possibly unsafe nature of a nearby nuclear power plant. We then jump ahead four decades to the present day, where we follow a London publisher (Broadbent) who is running from the gangster friends of one of his authors (Hanks) and ends up trapped in Kafkaesque fashion in a nursing home by his brother (Grant), who is still angry over a decades-old betrayal. The next temporal leap is much larger, landing us in Neo-Seoul in 2144, where we follow the story of a cloned “fabricant” (Doona Bae) who is rescued by a daring rebel (Sturgess) and helps lead an uprising against the corporate overlords who created her and the other fabricants as disposable labor. The final story, which takes place in an unspecified future (we are told it takes place “106 winters after the Fall,” but we don’t know when the Fall was), involves various surviving iterations of human society, ranging from a peaceful forest tribe, to a hoard of painted cannibals, to a race of highly evolved humans with advanced technology.
The vastness of the narrative mosaic in Cloud Atlas demands a kind of awe, and even when it doesn’t exactly work, it still exerts a compelling sense of commitment to both the wonders of storytelling and the idea of the interconnectedness of lives across time and space. The film borrows Mitchell’s narrative device of having characters in each story reading about elements from the previous story (Berry’s journalist, for example, becomes consumed with the letters the young English musician wrote to his lover, which form the voice-over narration in that tale), but its effectiveness is diluted by the cinematic medium, which cannot replicate the diegetic writings the way Mitchell’s novel could.
Yet, this is a small loss, since Tykwer and the Wachowskis already have enough material to fill six films. They juggle the various stories admirably, while stringing them together with a series of interconnected themes, most of which revolve around personal responsibility for one’s life and future. They are also unafraid to challenge the audience with unexpected detours and devices, such as the dense jargon-speak used in the postapocalyptic future. As Tykwer and the Wachowskis are both responsible for some of the most cult-adored films of the previous decade (Run Lola Run and The Matrix trilogy, respectively), it is not surprising that they would be willing to gamble together on a film that, by any stretch of the imagination, cannot possibly be fully appreciated with only one viewing. I suspect that the intricacies of Cloud Atlas’ interlocking stories and themes will only be fully revealed with multiple viewings, and one of the best things I can say about the film is that I am eager to revisit it and see what else unfolds.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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