Cloud Atlas (2012)
Most people regarded David Mitchell’s 2004 sprawling novel Cloud Atlas was unfilmable. It has six different stories each set in a different time period, slotted into a different genre, and each a variation on storytelling. Mitchell’s tome was structured like a series of nesting dolls, each narrative pulling back to reveal a character reading the previous manuscript, and eventually the direction was reversed. We go from the mid-nineteenth century to post-apocalyptic and back again. I read the book over the summer and found it to be enthralling, especially because each storyline was written so distinctively in a different writing style. The post-apocalyptic linguistics definitely took some getting used to. How could you turn this unwieldy book into a workable movie?
The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, teamed up with German director Tom Tyker (Run Lola Run) to try and find a way. They decided to split up the stories into a musical syncopation, with stories blending into one another. As a result, Cloud Atlas is six different movies for the price of one but it’s far more than the sum of its parts. Cloud Atlas coalesces, bleeds, and bends, becoming a Mobius strip of causality and courage and love. The trio of directors, who shot simultaneously with two separate film crews, has done the impossible and translated Mitchell’s brilliant novel into a soaring, compelling, and multifaceted epic on hope and humanism.
Where to begin with this one? Well, in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is traveling across the Pacific back to his home in San Francisco. He’s fallen ill on the ship and keeping the secret of a stowaway in his chamber, a Moriori slave named Autua (David Gyasi). In 1931, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a penniless gay musician looking for refuge. He offers his services to the aged but still famed composer, Vyvian Ayers (Jim Broadbent). Ayers will dictate and Frobisher will assist in writing. In 1971, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a reporter investigating a series of murders tied to a nuclear facility and a report the head honcho (Hugh Grant) doesn’t want exposed. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a small-time publisher who mistakenly checks himself into a nursing home that won’t allow him to leave. In 2140, a new working class is grown from the lab. Somni 451 (Doona Bae) is one of these fabricants. With the help of a revolutionary (Sturgess), she escapes her confines and learns the horrors of the totalitarian world and becomes part of the rebellion. And 100 winters after “The Fall,” mankind has descended into agrarian tribes. Zachry (Hanks) is a goat herder who reluctantly agrees to take Meronym (Berry) to a hallowed mountain. Meronym belongs to the last group of technology-abled civilization, the Prescients, and Zachry mistrusts her and is tempted to kill her to protect his people. Just describing this stuff is tiring and could take up two reviews.
This is going to be a very divisive movie, this much I can tell. It’s so powerfully earnest that you either embrace its mushiness and ambitions or you smirk and mock its New Age philosophy and optimism. There will be no middle ground with this film. We’re talking about transmigrating souls over the course of 500 years, Tom Hanks as a post-apocalyptic goat herder, and an evil presence known as Old Georgie, who looks like the forgotten cousin to the Wicked Witch of the West. There is some stuff in this movie that is plenty goofy, especially when seen on the surface. It takes a while to ease into the film, adjust to its tempo and accept the context of those goofy elements. But once that’s established then it feels like you can handle anything. There’s such an overflowing of feeling in this movie that it’s easy to make fun of it, to dismiss it under the safety of ironic detachment. It would be easy to decry the Cloud Atlas team for being self-indulgent or pretentious. What they are doing is far from normal, but the achievement of Cloud Atlas is the graceful way it finds to connect the rhythms of a deeply felt humanity. It has its stirring moments and memorable scenes, but when compacted and collected into a beautiful whole, that’s where the movie transcends. When an authoritative character barks, “You are but a drop in an ocean,” and our hero responds, “What is an ocean but a series of drops?” you either roll your eyes or you cheer. This is an earnest movie that wears its humanism on its sleeve. You either roll with that or you don’t, and I decided to embrace the big, messy, mushiness of the whole project and was swept away.
For a three-hour movie, the time flew by, and by the end I knew I had to see Cloud Atlas again. The first viewing requires much in the way of processing. You’re stringing together the disparate strands of the narrative, you’re listening hard to decipher the post-apocalyptic tongue of Zachry and company, and then you’re also keeping track of what actors are playing what characters, crossing lines of race and gender. The disguised actor factor is something of a fun ”who’s who” party game throughout the movie; initially distracting and somewhat questionable (especially the cross-racial makeup). I think seeing Cloud Atlas a second time will allow me to immerse myself further, finding new depths and connections. The pacing is surprisingly swift for a three-hour movie. You barely notice the time is gone, and honestly I could have done with even more movie, especially during the Neo Seoul segment. Given the six segments, some stories are going to be more compelling than others. I don’t think too many people are going to be as compelled with Frobisher’s creative sessions as they are Somni’s escape from enslavement. Initially, you’ll be scratching your head what they all have in common, and the lighthearted segments seem to clash with the more severe segments of systemic abuses. But then the big picture starts to eventually emerge and you see the parallel themes of oppression, bondage, rebellion, sacrifice, abolition and the yearning for freedom at all costs. The filmmakers find clever ways to thematically link their different tales. The movie starts to become a musical experience, much like Frobisher’s central melody, the overlapping notes of repetition and the swelling movements of human life in minor and major.
As anyone who endured the Matrix sequels will attest, the Wachoswkis are film theologians and Cloud Atlas is unabashedly spiritual. The filmmakers openly favor examining the spiritual side of Mitchell’s novel rather than the political. I found the results to be intriguing but short of profound. From a philosophical/theological standpoint, Cloud Atlas is not breaking new ground or even going into great depth. We’ve got some basic Eastern notions like reincarnation and trying to improve upon one’s soul through various lifetimes. There’s also the notion that death is just a transitional phase and not the end. The film is also very interested in the transcendentalist interconnections of human history. “With each crime and each act of kindness, we give way to our future,” says Somni at one point. I like this; it’s essentially karma in its purest form but it also denotes that every choice gives ways to multitudes of possible futures (perhaps pedestrian but I still like it). I feel that human kindness is long-reaching and casts out many ripples, and Cloud Atlas is a film all about the ripples, seeing the long-reaching effects to causes, and discovering that individuals can become movements and movements can become inspiration. I also like the relatable debate over religious belief in the far-flung future; the Valley people worship Somni as their gracious Goddess, but the more advanced Prescients view her as a person, noble and with strong and important ideas but flesh and blood. And yet the film doesn’t look down on Zachry and his people for their beliefs; Somni inspires them to do good. Do the details matter when the results are positive? Cloud Atlas has plenty of intriguing questions roiling around, moments of pause worthy of post-screening debate. It’s not too deep but it’s far from shallow (the Wachoswkis love their Christ-like imagery, don’t they?).
From a filmmaking craft standpoint, Cloud Atlas is often breathtaking. In some respects it feels like something radically new, a $100 million dollar art film. The visuals are wonderful and the different time periods all come across handsomely mounted, perfectly realized, the details vivid and period appropriate. The future worlds are easily the most engrossing just because of how different they are. You’re never spoon-fed the answers in this movie, so we’re left to put together what lead to each future. I would have loved to have gotten even more details about Somni’s world, a time where democracy has been replaced by “corpocracy,” a world run by corporations. The ambitious story structure of Cloud Atlas could have easily become confusing, but the filmmakers smartly give each segment its own little undivided period to set up that world and its unique tone. They even provide date stamps. Then things get more spliced together, the different storylines cascading and braided together. Some of the storylines have to wrap up early and others are saved for heartbreaking finales of tragic resonance. The elliptical romances spanning centuries provide nice counterpoints and satisfying out-of-time conclusions for storylines that don’t always end cheerful. The movie is often thrilling, intellectually stimulating, disturbing, and poignant, though to be fair it comes up short when it comes to emotional involvement. Like the stunted depth of its philosophy, the movie has a way of drawing you in but never fully; it’s all about a wealth of human feelings and the nature of humanity yet it quixotically comes up short emotionally.
With up to six roles to play, the actors are given plenty to work with. It would be redundant to say you’ve never seen many of these actors like they are in Cloud Atlas (has anyone ever seen Berry in whiteface?). Every actor gets to play heroes and villains, saints and sinners. Only Weaving (The Matrix) and Grant (The Pirates! Band of Misfits) play antagonists in just about every story, and when you have Weaving at your disposal you have to give the man a role with menace. Grant gets to play a post-apocalyptic marauding cannibal. You won’t see him eat anybody’s face in one of those Bridget Jones movies. Like the filmmakers, the actors display full commitment to their varied roles no matter how silly some of the future diction may sound (“for true-true”). Hanks instantly anchors your empathy as Zachry and grounds a storyline that has the biggest danger of slipping into silliness. Readers will know I’m not the biggest Berry fan, and that is probably being charitable. However, I was truly impressed with her work in Cloud Atlas and would easily classify this as her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball. Her portrayal of Luisa Rey has such fire and her Meronym has such melancholy. Broadbent (The Iron Lady) is still highly enjoyable as a pompous sort, I’m always happy to see Keith David, and Weaving is delightful in his venomous villains, as a devil, a hit man, and most vividly as the Nurse Ratchet-style sadistic head nurse antagonizing Cavendish. The real breakaway star is Bae (The Host), who also benefits by having the most involving storyline. Her gradual awakening is just about note-perfect, alternating between curiosity, horror, amazement, and finally anger. All of those emotions need to be free of histrionics but if too underplayed then Somni seems like a walking zombie. Bae finds the right somber middle ground and her journey is the most emotionally rewarding.
In the end, there’s so much to unpack, dissect, discuss, debate, and contemplate with this movie, and every hour I think of some new connection that dovetails the plots. Cloud Atlas is a thrillingly artistic mosaic, a giant puzzle that begs for closer examination. Unlike the films of Terrence Malick, this is a dense, challenging work that is also accessible and, here’s the heretical part film snobs, entertaining. We get a kaleidoscope of the human experience told in beautiful flourishes. There are a lot of demands with Cloud Atlas, and ultimately it may demand multiple viewings to completely sort out one’s opinion on this gigantic picture of gigantic feeling. I’m still uncertain whether I really enjoyed it or loved it, nagging doubts concerning the limited emotional attachment to consider. I’m curious what a second viewing, stripped of analyzing which actor is in what body, will allow me to further appreciate the scale and scope of the film’s achievement.
The individual stories of Cloud Atlas may not be terribly profound but collectively this movie is something special. I anticipate it will be trendy to mock its sincerity and ambition and New Agey spirituality (not that a negative opinion is automatically invalid). We live in a cynical world. It’s rare to find a movie that has so many things to say with such intense earnestness. It’s even more rare for that movie to be good. Due to the sci-fi elements and time hopping, The Fountain and 2001 will be natural film comparisons, but In some ways Cloud Atlas reminds me more of another divisive film, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!. Both were sincere movies about the genuine power of love and human connection, told with such artistic flair, drive, and ambition, and both attempt to transform the traditional tropes of storytelling and drama into a brave new 21st century collage of sight and sound and sprawling spirits. Simply put, you’ll never see a movie like Cloud Atlas again. So do yourself a favor and see it already, then find someone to talk about it and compare how fast the time goes. Then, if you’re like me, see it again.
Nate’s Grade: A
Posted on October 26, 2012, in 2012 Movies and tagged ben whishaw, book, drama, gay, halle berry, hugh grant, hugo weaving, jim broadbent, jim sturgess, keith david, period film, romance, sci-fi, slavery, thriller, tom hanks, tom tyker, wachowski siblings. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.