Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Ever since the extended trailer of Cloud Atlas was released, there was an odd mix of curiosity and excitement around the film. The early reaction at TIFF was surprisingly good from the majority of those who I had spoken with during the festival. However, those who disliked the film were not shy about voicing their displeasure. My main reservation going into the film was not the subject matter, but the directors behind the film. While I have liked the films that I have seen from Tom Tykwer, such as Run Lola Run and Heaven for example, I was starting to lose faith in Lana and Andy Wachowski. The combination of The Matrix sequels and Speed Racer had left a bad taste in my mouth. However, I must admit that I was glad I got around to seeing this film on the big screen. Cloud Atlas restored my faith in The Wachowskis’ ability to make more meaningful films.

Adapted from David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas covers six different stories that span from the early 20th century all to the way to a post-dystopian future. Each story is styled in such a way that it suits the tone of the era without making the overall film seem disjointed. The first story starts in 1849 and follows a young lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) who becomes ill while visiting a plantation. As he journeys home across the south pacific he is tended to by Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), who seems determined to ensure that Ewing’s condition continues to deteriorate. The next tale takes place in 1936 and centres around a bisexual composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who apprentices himself to a legendary composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbnt). Frobisher creates the beautiful Cloud Atlas Sextet only to find that Ayrs wants to claim ownership of the piece. The third story, and last of the ones set in the past, involves journalist Lisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she stumbles upon a conspiracy taking place at a power plant run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant).

The film jumps to present day for its fourth story about a vain publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), whose karma for past deceits finally catches up with him when he is tricked into a retirement home. The fifth arc takes place in 2144 where a “fabricant” named Sonmi-45 (Doona Bae) begins to think on her own and starts a revolution as a result. This uprising will have great ramifications in the year 2321 where the final story thread takes place. There we encounter a meek man named Zachary (Hanks) who is asked by Meronym (Berry), who is the representative of the last vestiges of advance civilization, to aid her on a quest that will ultimately help to save mankind. Haunted by his own past sins, and fearful of a violent tribe that roams the land, Zachary finds himself conflicted as to whether or not he can muster the courage that is needed for this dangerous journey.

Raising above ones past sins is one of the prominent themes within Cloud Atlas. This is shown through the birthmark that the main characters of the six stories display on their body. The birthmark symbolizes a moment in each of their lives where an important choice must be made. These choices will have major ramifications on the world as a whole. Unlike most films, Cloud Atlas offers the audience an opportunity to see the various incarnations of the characters over time. For example, Tom Hank’s character moves from a prominent villain in the 1849 story to mildly sinister gangster in 2012 to a man who must learn to be selfless in 2321. It is only in the year 2321 that the birthmark appears on Hanks’ character.

On the surface the one exception to this comes in Robert Frobisher storyline, which is easily the most emotionally engaging part of the whole film. If you examine the men and women that Ben Whishaw plays over time, they are all individuals with rather loose morals who frequently cheat on their partners. In the Frobisher arc, he starts off as a trickster and plots to use his connections to Ayrs for his own personal gain. It is only through his Cloud Atlas Sextext, and love for partner Rufus Sixsmith (James D’arcy), that we see that Frobisher has good within him. However, he continually makes rash decisions on his own without trusting in, or waiting for, the helpful abilities of others. Which is something that all of the others storylines all feature in some aspect.

Though the central idea in Cloud Atlas is the ability for one person to evoke positive change, by no means is the film saying that people need to tackle the world on their own. In fact, the film wants to convey the message that we are all connected and our actions have lasting ripple effects on future generations. While this theme may come across as being too simple at times, it works well when you look at what the film is trying to attempt as a whole. The sheer scope of the film is something to behold.

The fact that Cloud Atlas even made it into mainstream theatres, let alone being made by three directors, is a testament to the passion that Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis’ had for the project. Covering six stories and having actors playing up to six parts each of different races and genders would be a recipe for disaster in most productions of this size and scope. However, it all works beautifully when you look at the films as a whole rather than the sum of its parts. Sure there are moments in the first twenty minutes of the film where I was playing “guess the actor behind the makeup?”, but that quickly passes once the full nature of the film begins to unfold. Also not every story, most notably the amusing Timothy Cavendish, are as gripping as the rest but their inclusion makes sense structurally.

It should also be noted that the editing in Cloud Atlas is outstanding. Though the film constantly jumps back in forth between time to tell the six stories, I was always able to not only follow along, but remember what had occurred in that particular story up to that point. The sheer scope and ambition of Cloud Atlas should have set it up for failure. Instead Tykwer and The Wachowskis created one of the most captivating films of the year. It is a film that begs for repeat viewings and will probably not truly be appreciated for its cinematic accomplishments until future generations discover it...which would be rather fitting when you think about it.


  1. Good review CS. It’s a long movie, but it still kept my interest and had me wondering just how all of these stories were going to converge at the end. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed even though I didn’t feel an emotional-connection to it whatsoever.

    1. While I found myself deeply engaged in the film, I have heard several complain about the lack of emotional connection. I think the directors did the best they could in providing all the characters with a fair amount of depth. They would need to make the film five hours to ensure every single story arc was emotionally deeper.

    2. Anonymous11:01 pm

      This is the best review I've read about the film. I originally listened to it as an audio book which was amazing and I have a bias in that regard. I think the movie was well done considering how much there was to the book. But some of the themes were more fleshed out and were more moving to me anyway.

  2. This film is utter failure. 3 Long hr. Awful make-up. The most racist film of 2012... Here is why.

    MANAA (Media Action Network for Asian American) issued tat Cloud Atlas is the racist film. This film using Yellowface
    brought back the old Hollywood racist depicting of Asian American males. I was insulted by this film that I walked out of the theater. Yellowface make-up takes away Asian actor having chance to play Asian role instead they hired 3 white guys in ugly shitty slanted-eye crap which reminds me
    of HOllywood racism. There are more reasons the worst this film gotten. Most non-Asian male audience don't care of Yellowface cuz they are not to be insulted. The insult is
    directed at Asian male while Asian female roles were all kind of serving White guy in Yellowface. Same old sexualization of Asian females.

    1. While I can understand were the MANAA is coming from, you must remember that most of the actors play characters of a different ethnicity at some point in the film (e.g. Asian play Caucasian, African-American play Caucasian, White play Asian, African-American play Asian, etc). The only glaring omission is that no one plays a African-American in the film. I understand that some may see it as crossing the line, but if you have already established that your actors are going to be playing these type of roles you might as well go all the way with it.


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