The centuries are full of tales,
Not all of which are told for sales.
Some barely dent; some tip the scales,
And those who lived them rarely knew
If theirs for others would ring true.
The choices made for centuries
By king and kid and star and sleaze,
By massive and minute degrees
Affect, destroy, create, and bless
More fates than anyone could guess.
MPAA rating: R
Remember that feeling of being blown away that I mentioned back when I reviewed Inception and King of Thorn? Well, it’s back with a vengeance. After the credits of Cloud Atlas began rolling, I was left speechless and strangely satisfied. As Tom Hanks said in one of the DVD featurettes, upon reading the script, “I didn’t have any questions.” When the interviewer then asked, “So you understood it?” he replied with an unabashed “No.” Cloud Atlas is such a huge, epic, multi-layered piece of work that it’s no surprise that the most common descriptor from both admirers and detractors has been “ambitious.” It’s one of those rare films that found its way onto the best-of and worst-of lists of different critics, and I can easily understand both opinions. I feel I should recommend it to everyone, yet I can guarantee not everyone will like it. But I did.
I’m having trouble even coming up with a succinct way to describe Cloud Atlas, if there is one. Based on David Mitchell’s novel and adapted by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis of Matrix fame, it’s six separate stories in one, all linked by the continuity of souls and the bonds of literature, love, faith, music, kindness, and loss. The first tale is a 19th-century seafaring voyage of a dying lawyer (Jim Sturgess) and a runaway slave (David Gyasi). The lawyer’s journal is later read by a gay composer (Ben Whishaw), whose dealings with a famous maestro (Jim Broadbent) are like The Imitation Game with sheet music. The former’s letters are later read by Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist whose investigations play out like Silkwood meets Coma and inspire a mystery novel read later by Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) as he plots against his Cuckoo’s Nest-style incarceration. Then, there’s the distant future, where a submissive clone named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is saved by a resistance fighter (Sturgess) in Neo-Seoul, plus an even further post-apocalyptic future where Zachry (Tom Hanks) and a technologically advanced stranger (Berry) journey to potentially save what is left of mankind. How’s that for succinct?
With so much sheer plot to cover, it’s no surprise that the film stretches for close to three hours and could easily have been lengthened into a mini-series event. One of the most divisive aspects of Cloud Atlas is how it was edited, not with each story being told individually (as is the case in the novel, I’ve heard), but with every other scene jumping randomly to another time period to continue one of the other plotlines. One minute, we’re watching Tom Hanks as an apocalyptic goat herder, the next he’s playing a murderous author in 2012. I don’t know how the editing team kept track of everything, and it so easily could have turned into a confusing mess, but as odd as it seems, this unorthodox strategy works. It’s not every film that begins by explaining that, if the audience “can extend [their] patience for just a moment, you will find that there is a method to this tale of madness.” Each story is straightforward enough that I was able to follow it, especially with the settings and costumes differentiating them from each other. The method works too to drive home certain similarities between the timelines, in one instance someone walking along a precarious perch, in another a villain being knocked out from behind just before killing someone.
Each story seems to have its own genre too, whether it be the corporate espionage of the 1970s plot or the British comedy of the Cavendish tale. Probably the most entertaining are the futuristic Neo-Seoul segments, which also have the coolest visuals. Watching how these stories are connected in ways big and small, with questions raised early and answered late, is a journey which requires patience but which I found rewarding as some of the stories end tragically but some with great satisfaction. I also recognized quite a few little influences from other films, ranging from Silkwood, Soylent Green, and Mad Max to Logan’s Run, Wrinkles, and The Fellowship of the Ring.
As I alluded to earlier, the extensive cast make cameos of varying importance in the six stories, often playing such wildly deviating roles that I can imagine the actors viewing this film as a special treat and challenge for their abilities. Luckily, the entire cast rises to the occasion to make every character distinct, sometimes even playing roles of different gender and ethnicity. It’s practically a game trying to spot every recognizable face. Hanks, Berry, Broadbent, and Sturgess are the most significant presences throughout the film, but also making important impacts on the story are Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Hugo Weaving. Weaving may be inescapably recognizable in every role, but he’s certainly diverse as a villain, playing a Nurse Ratched wannabe, a Korean board member, and a specter of the devil called Old Georgie. The care taken to hiding the actors in plain sight is incredible, and not to invalidate that Tom Hanks quote from earlier, but my main question afterward was where they incorporated everyone, even in unrecognizable cameos.
I suppose I should answer why Cloud Atlas appealed to me, when it clearly turns off so many others. I remember seeing the monumental 5+-minute trailer back in 2012, honestly the best trailer I think I’ve ever seen (see the bottom), and I’ve had a burning curiosity about it ever since, which has been delayed by reports of its confusing and objectionable narrative. And yet, I had to see it. I guess I’m simply an enormous appreciator of continuity, the idea that a storyteller knows where he’s going from the start and mixes the myriad ingredients and characters of his tale in subtle but memorable ways. That’s why I love Lost; all the little flashbacks converge at times, with characters bumping into each other long before they meet in earnest, hinting at a larger story and hand at work. I’m a sucker for this concept of cosmic connections which Cloud Atlas manages to capture across centuries; when the tapestry threads of the story come together and the music swells, I…I just can’t help but get goosebumps.
Yet I must admit that it’s not done in a particularly Christian way. Aside from the frequent language and occasional sex and violence, the plot hinges on the idea of reincarnation and the continuity of souls, things in which I do not believe. In fact, I usually roll my eyes at this kind of New Age metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, yet I can accept it as a movie concept for the sake of appreciating the bigger picture it paints, if only in a three-hour movie. Similarly, the long runtime and jarring changes of place and tone can be a bear to sit through, but it’s worth it once you get over the hump in the middle. Oh, and by the way, watch with subtitles; the furthest future segment has a crazily stylized pigeon-English that is admirable in a cultural sense but hard to understand without reading along.
Love it or hate it, Cloud Atlas is a film hard to forget, a piece of crazy cinematic art that is as bizarre and challenging as it is beautiful and daring. If its methods were a bit more mainstream, I could see it as a Best Picture nominee, but it’s a crime that it didn’t receive one Oscar nomination, not even for the effects or the universally lauded score. (It should have effortlessly won Makeup and Hairstyling, at least.) The cinematography and talented cast clearly mark it as a noble effort, and I suppose it’s up to each individual viewer to decide whether it’s a masterpiece or a train wreck. It’s a monument of a film, one full of ideas and themes I do not endorse or believe in and others that are simply universal. This is not a film to watch casually, but it is undoubtedly worth watching.
Best line: (Haskell Moore, played by Weaving) “There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten; at worst, to be lynched or crucified. And for what? For what? No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.” (Adam Ewing, played by Sturgess) “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”
© 2016 S.G. Liput
437 Followers and Counting
Here’s that trailer that so captivated me. It’s a perfect little encapsulation of how the film made me feel too.