Oh boy, where can I begin? Reviews have been mixed, and for a good reason; Cloud Atlas is a love it or hate it movie. I do not expect to find a middle ground. The great thing about movies like this is that they get people talking, debating, and thinking. So even if you are on the hate it crowd, this movie affected you in someway or other. Generally speaking, I’d say this is a good thing in any art form. Luckily for me, I am in the LOVE IT crowd.
Cloud Atlas tells six stories interwoven to various degrees, all with the same thematic elements: primarily the search for freedom and the human desire to be together. Individually each piece is engaging enough, it would have made a good short story. But the editing turns all six into a thematic concerto that only film as an art medium can provide. To think that the novel was considered “un-filmable” means there is a lack of creativity out there. If anything Cloud Atlas proves the vast versatility of film as a story telling medium.
The six stories that we see are:
In 1850, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) visits New Zealand and then sails home to San Francisco, where his wife if waiting. Along the way, he discovers a stowaway slave (David Gyasi), whom he befriends. There is also a mysterious Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) who spends his days collecting teeth.
In Belgium after WWI, an aspiring composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw), reads Adam Ewing’s diary, as he works for an old composer Vyvan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) whose best days are over.
In 1974, San Francisco, a reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) reads Frobisher’s letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), all while she gets drawn into the apparent cover up of a murder.
In present day, an elderly publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is locked up by his brother (Hugh Grant) in an elderly ward from which he tries to escape with the aide of his friends. He ultimately writes a novel about his adventures, and gets adapted into a movie.
In the near future, Seoul, a cloned “fabricant”, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) finds the movie about Cavendish’s adventures (played by Tom Hanks in the adaptation). She then joins a rebellion wishing to gran rights to the fabricants and falls in love with Hae-Joo (Jim Sturgess).
After the apocalypse, reduces humanity back to a tribal society, Zachry (Tom Hanks) and a stranger Meronym (Halle Berry) climb a mountain where they learn the truth of Sonmi - now considered a prophet in their culture.
The stories are interwoven further, as some characters are clear reincarnations of the previous versions. Either because they are played by the same actor, or because a recurring birthmark is present in several of them. You have to go by one or the other, since they tend to contradict. And to complicate it further some appear as dreams inside the other’s reality. Some characters appear in more than one, but aged, and some might not have even happened and are just fabrications of the other’s imagination.
Yet, as complicated as this sounds it is surprisingly easy to follow linearly, once you settle in with the pace. A testament to the ability of the filmmakers, and the editor. A score, composed in-story by Frobisher, dreamt by Zachry, and enjoyed by Louisa Rey also helps guide the reader. The complexity screams for some explanation. The right questions seem to be in place. But it doesn’t provide us with the answers. This might be a bit too meta for many folks out there, but what if there is no right answer? The goal of the film is clearly to challenge the audience into asking the questions. Personally, I believe this is OK. And better than something packaged for easy consumption.
The stories vary in terms of effectiveness and style. Some are rather silly, others quite trippy, and a couple very straight-forward. Personally I enjoyed the young composer’s story and the apocalyptic setting the most, while Cavendish plight in the elderly asylum was good old silly fun. Opinions here will vary, but there is certainly something for everyone.
If you noticed above, or have likely heard it already, the film has received some heavy criticism for the use of “yellowface”, that is whit actor playing Asian characters. The practice is generally frowned upon; in the past it was generally used to portray racist caricatures like blackface. To the defense of Cloud Atlas, there seems to be some reasoning behind it, and the film also has “whiteface”, “black-to-yellowface”, “gay face”, crossdress and every other sort of mix and match of actors to race and gender you can possibly imagine. At times, as is the case with Asian Jim Sturges, the make-up is cartoonish and not at its best. Sometimes this seems to be intentional, as is the case for Hugo Weaving as a burly nurse. And other times you will have no idea whom you are looking at and will be quite surprised when you find out at the credits. Playing guess-who is half of the fun here.
Cloud Atlas might be confusing, pretentious, and silly but the one thing it is not is boring. It is demented and brilliant at the same time. But above all it is ambitious - and a little self indulgent. It walks along the edge of absolute disaster, but it makes it through the end without ever overstepping the line. It is a bold, risky, move by all the filmmakers and producers involved. Movies like this are few and they don’t come very often; this is certainly a must watch experience, solely because it exists. And, if you are like me, you will find it to be a magical experience.