Directors: Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Writers: Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer (screenplay), David Mitchell (novel)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving
Release date: February 22nd, 2013
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Countries: Germany, USA
Running time: 172 minutes
Best part: The interweaving story-lines.
Worst part: The laughable make-up effects.
Have you ever stared up at the stars? Or studied the patterns embedded in your fingerprints? Or even truly embraced the people close to you? Don’t worry, these actions are completely normal. This behaviour is considered to be ‘philosophical’. Throughout history, man has strived to answer life’s big questions. Cloud Atlas is an ambitious and enthralling examination of the human condition. It’s an extraordinarily difficult film to analyse. This review may only cover a small fraction of what the film has presented.
This complex movie covers the past, present and future. The narrative is made up of six stories, each with their own significant plot-points. The first plot-thread is set in the South Pacific Ocean in 1849. An American Lawyer, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), arrives in the Chatham Islands during the California Gold Rush. He befriends a poorly treated Slave, Autua (David Gyasi). At the same time, his friendship with Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) takes a frightening turn. The next story, set in 1936, follows a young bisexual musician, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), journeying from Cambridge to Edinburgh. He gets a chance to work with one of the greatest composers of all time. But their partnership is far from ideal. The next story, set in 1973, depicts a journalist’s gruelling search for answers. The Journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), finds herself in more trouble than she ever could’ve imagined. The next story, set in 2012, finds a London-based book publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), in hot water after a run-in with British gangsters. Searching for a place to hide, he finds himself locked up in a nursing home. In Neo- Seoul (2144), a dainty female clone, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae – the film’s stand-out performer), may hold the key to Earth’s survival. A resistance agent, Commander Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess again), must release her from a life of servitude. The last story is based in a post-apocalyptic world. Zachry (Hanks again) leads a peaceful tribe. He must guide Meronym (Berry again) across a wasteland known as ‘The Valley’. However, he is threatened by an evil spirit known as ‘Old Georgie’ (Hugo Weaving).
The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have created the biggest independent production in film history. Their new film will struggle to make a profit. However, it’s nice to know that Hollywood directors are still willing to try new things. This is, as you can tell, a unique and expansive narrative. The writer/directors have inventively adapted David Mitchell’s book of the same name. The six story-lines are vastly different in both setting and tone. Bringing these contrasting stories together is a startling achievement. They are all bound together by certain ideas and character types. The 1849 story is seamlessly juxtaposed with the Neo-Seoul story. It takes a while for every story to intertwine. After a rather confusing prologue, I spent over two-thirds of the film trying to figure out how every story was connected. The film is bold and ambiguous (both very rare traits nowadays), but it could’ve been comprehensible at the same time. It becomes bogged down by pretentiousness in certain sections. The poetic dialogue and heavy handed messages are, to a certain extent, distractions. If you judge some of the story-lines on their own, you may notice that they are rather hollow. The nursing home story-line, for example, is shallow and easily could’ve been excised from the film.
It’s a film that is both famous and infamous. It has already been placed on ‘Best of 2012’ and ‘Worst of 2012’ lists (if you hate my review, you should read Time Magazine’s write-up!). However, Hollywood films of this magnitude and complexity have always been met with mixed reactions. Despite minor flaws, it’s a film with so many positives. The use of metaphor and symbolism is nothing short of mesmerising. Cloud Atlas discusses how one person can change the entire universe. Our actions can shape time, space, identity and/or culture. The post-apocalyptic story-thread is poignant and rich. This Apocalypto-style world enthrallingly bursts into life. This story-line pushes the film to its enthralling climax. It discusses the fact vs. belief debate. This debate is de-constructed; proving that both fact and belief can lead to hate, betrayal and/or suffering. The editing is Cloud Atlas’ saving grace. All six story-lines are welded together; turning this delicate sci-fi drama into a roller-coaster ride of gargantuan proportions. Certain story-threads interweave in a light-hearted manner. For example, characters in Neo-Seoul will watch video footage featuring events from another story. These transitions relieve the many jarring tonal shifts. The film distracted me by hurriedly switching from a slapstick comedy to an intense corporate espionage thriller.
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” (Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), Cloud Atlas).
This 3 hour examination of humanity and fate gets bogged down by its own hubris. The writer/directors have, in the past, created some remarkable achievements. But they have also created some stinkers. They put too much of themselves into this film. At one point, one of the characters throws a critic off of a balcony. This was an unsubtle and slightly offensive way of expressing an opinion. The Wachowskis are clearly still bitter about their last three critical and commercial bombs (the Matrix sequels, Speed Racer). Pet projects of A-list directors have failed in the past (Sucker Punch, Southland Tales, The Fountain). This film does succeed, but there are still some truly laughable elements. Lana Wachowski (formerly Larry) has drastically changed throughout her many years in the spotlight. The Wachowskis believe that anyone can change. The actors are forced out of their comfort zones to fit the ‘identity crisis/genetic experimentation’ theme. Caucasian, Black and Asian actors switch between varying classes, races and genders. The make-up effects are, for the most part, extremely unconvincing. Certain actors have genetic qualities that continually shine through the prosthetics (Keith David in particular). Some characters look like they’ve stepped out of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.
Ambitious, excessive and intensive; Cloud Atlas carries the weight of the world on its shoulders. It’s a tale unlike any other. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have created a beautiful movie about environmentalism, politics, capitalism, love, philosophy and sociology.