Monday, September 16, 2013

Cloud Atlas

If there was one movie that was released theatrically in 2012 I was anticipating the most it would have had to have been Cloud Atlas. Why? I’m a big Wachowski whore (yes, even Speed Racer) and I love the majority of Tom Tykwer’s films (The Princess and the Warrior is lamesauce), and fact that the three of them were collaborating on one single project had me giddy like a schoolboy.

Then why did I never see it when it was released in theaters back in October 2012? It could have been the word of mouth I was hearing. Critics had branded it “pretentious”, “overblown” and “a mess”. Opinions were very divisive; either you loved it or you hated it. There was no in-between. The length was also an issue since it clocked in at just about three hours. Another factor was that it disappeared from cineplexes extremely fast. Within three weeks it was gone due to poor audience turnout (at least in the US). So I just figured I’d check it out when it was released on home video.
Then why did I never see it on video until just now? To be completely honest I forgot about it. It popped up on DVD and BluRay with little fanfare and I didn’t realize it was available until early this summer. And even then I avoided it because finding the time to watch such a (possible) lengthy shitstorm was hard to come by. And then I said one day “just watch the fucking thing already, would ya?!”, and I did.

Cloud Atlas is about several interlocking stories that span centuries, from 1849 all the way into the distant future, and how events from each time period help to shape events and people.

That’s about as simple I can break down the overall plot. This flick is complicated and extremely epic in scope, and the fact that I was actually able to sum it up in one sentence is a minor miracle in itself. There is so much going on within this movie that involves so many characters that it’s mindboggling to think that I was able to keep up with what was going on and with whom.
Each story in each time period is broken up and spread out across the movie, sometimes confusingly so since the editing at times isn’t up to snuff, and the actors play characters in each story (there are six total), sometimes swapping sex and nationality in the process. In one segment you have Korean actress Doona Bae playing an Asian clone in the future, the next she’s a Latina factory worker in the 70s and the next she’s a Caucasian landowner’s wife in the 1800s. It’s a lot to take in at the start, but once I acclimated to the editing style and each time period I realized I was watching one of the most daring and original films I had ever seen.

The acting is pretty solid for the most part. Tom Hanks, well, we all know he’s a god amongst actors. He plays characters in all six stories and he manages to make each one unique. The same for Halle Berry who plays the same amount of characters. She is better here than she’s been in years thanks to the direction of three geniuses. The other actors – Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving (his turn as the impish Old Georgie, a manifestation of one character's fears, is golden), Susan Sarandon, James D’arcy, Doona Bae, Zhou Xun, David Gyasi and Hugh Grant are all quite good depending on what time period they are being featured in. Sometimes it doesn’t pan out, like Sturgess’ emotionless turn as a Korean revolutionary or Sarandon’s gypsy fortune teller in the far future. Regardless, these thespians are taking risks and for the most part it pays off wonderfully. For example, seeing the lanky and unthreatening Hugh Grant playing a vicious and murderous tribesman in the far future segment took me aback since it is the complete opposite of the type of character he usually plays. Kudos!
The Wachowskis, Lana and Andy, directed the stories that take place in 1849, 2144 and 2321. It makes sense that they’d take the reigns of the CGI heavy segments since their films usually are rife with major effects sequences. Of course those scenes are stunning, especially the cityscapes in 2144. Thankfully they don’t revel in them for too long (as in The Matrix Revolutions) and focus on the storytelling and making damned sure that what’s going on is emotionally resonant and works within the grand scheme of things. While the story that takes place in 1849 isn’t the best of the bunch it does feature a number of great performances and the beginnings of the overall theme for the entire film. Their bits are also the most visually complex (duh).

Tom Tykwer directed the stories that take place in 1936, 1973 and 2012. These aren’t FX heavy segments and are mostly about the characters and keeping the theme intact. He really gets his actors to put everything they have into their various roles, especially Halle Berry in the 1973 bit. Out of all the stories, the ones Tykwer takes are the most varied in terms of genre. 1936 is a drama, 1973 is a thriller and 2012 is a comedy (all the Wachowski stories are straight up dramas with varying amounts of FX). Out of all the segments, 1936 is the most uninteresting due to how depressing it is and the melancholy performances. His 2012, on the other hand, had me in stitches due to how unbelievably funny it gets.
The main theme about rebelling against your oppressor is present in each story in varying degrees. In one bit it could be about standing up to a blackmailer, facing your fears or even starting a revolution. Some are more successful than others, but all follow the main throughline well enough. Some are positively touching and others rousing beyond belief. I’m not sure if this was how the book this is based on played out, but it certainly works in the context of the film. Amazingly so.

The score by Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil and Tom Tykwer, who also composed the scores to Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Klimek and Heil scored Land of the Dead, The Cave and One Hour Photo) is quite a masterpiece of aural bliss. I actually listened to the soundtrack long before seeing the movie it came from and found the compositions to be beautiful, haunting and exciting all at once, especially in the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” piece which is such a large part of the 1936 storyline. When these three dudes get together magic happens. It’s just a fact.
If there is one issue I have with Cloud Atlas it has to be the lackluster make-up effects. While the special effects are breathtaking at times the methods used to change the sexes and nationalities of the actors leaves something to be desired in the extreme. All the Asian make-up used is laughably bad and makes the actors look more like Vulcans from Star Trek than Koreans. Their foreheads and eyebrows don’t move giving the impression that everyone has had extensive Botox treatments. It’s nearly as insulting as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The make-up used to make Doona Bae look Caucasian doesn’t work at all because her distinctly Asian features are never covered up. The same goes for Halle Berry as a Caucasian (she looks like an alien), Hugo Weaving as a large woman (he looks like he’s in drag and nothing more) and Zhou Xun as a male hotel clerk (reverse drag). When compared to how meticulously thought out all other aspects of the film appear to be, this is a huge disappointment.

Another problem I have, and it isn’t necessarily the fault of anyone except the author of the novel, but the ghetto pidgin English used during the 2321 scenes is distracting and hard to follow. Sometimes I couldn’t understand anything being said at all and had to rely on subtitles to help me muddle through. I’ve been told by someone who read the book that it’s even harder to make sense of in that medium, reminding me of my attempting to decipher all the Scottish slang in Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting”.
The most annoying flaw is that the tag line of “Everything Is Connected” is more than a little misleading. I was under the impression that each story had some sort of influence or major impact over another, some even crossing over through time. But the only connection happens to be that someone might listen to a piece of music or read something written by a character from a previous segment. Some don’t seem to have any connection at all as far as I could tell. It’s not a major flaw in my book, just something that mildly disappointed me. Although a second viewing might clear this up since the film can be a little overwhelming at times.

Cloud Atlas is an amazing feat of filmmaking in all forms; from the adapting of the novel to screenplay form and having it make sense, the individual looks of each time period, the multitude of characters and the stable of actors that play them, the editing, the music and making sure it all comes together in a way that is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. There are some bumps along the way, but when the movie ended I have to say that I was speechless. This must’ve been a mammoth undertaking and I am in awe that these artists were able to pull it off. If history will remember anything about this film it will be that it was one of the most ambitious independent cinematic endeavors ever attempted, and the fact that it is so enjoyable on every conceivable level makes it that much more impressive. I know some who despise this movie, calling it cheesy and boring. I am not among that lot. I found this an amazing accomplishment and I highly recommend it to those still on the fence and have yet to give it a chance to kick their ass.

4.5 out of 5


  1. Great review Chris!! I admit I was a little disappointed in the connections also upon first viewing but you are right...a second will definitely help. The one thing I did notice in terms of the storylines being connected is that there was one "soul" or "spirit" that was always reincarnated in one of the characters in each of the storylines...the one with the comet birthmark. It was Jim Sturgess's character in 1849 (Ewing), Ben Whishaw's character in 1936 (Frobisher), Halle Berry's character in 1973 (Luisa Rey - that's why she recognized the Cloud Atlas Sextet...she had written it in her previous life), Jim Broadbent's character in 2012 (Cavendish), Doona Bae's character in 2144 (Sonmi-451), and Halle Berry's character again in 2321 (Meronym). There was also another character or “soul” that the person with the comet birthmark was destined to meet again and again in each life that had a major impact on them. It's probably a little far-fetched but assuming the first incarnation of this "soul" takes place in 1849, the act of kindness that Jim Sturgess's character receives from a slave when he saves his life after being poisoned (a return of kindness for helping him to gain passage on the ship instead of letting the captain brand him as a stowaway) inspires him to become an active revolutionist (or someone who fights against the system) which you can see is carried throughout the reincarnations of this character. It seems like that first incarnation shaped the type of character this "soul" would become throughout his future lives. He becomes the composer who is Sixsmith's lover in the 1936 timeline (Frobisher) who reads the manuscript published by Ewing and sends love letters to Sixsmith. An older Sixsmith meets Halle Berry's character in the elevator in the 1973 timeline and notices the same birthmark that Frobisher had and thus feels an unexplained connection to her. In terms of this story (and this may be even more far-fetched) I also don't think it is coincidence that Luisa Rey's character is black (not sure if that is true in the book). Had it not been for the 1849 storyline then slavery may have never been abolished and thus her character would not have been able to expose the power plant and save millions of lives (same goes for her protector Joe Napier who knew Luisa's father). Sixsmith's character is the one that knows the secrets of the nuclear power plant that Halle Berry's character is trying to expose as he was a physicist there, and he feels that he can trust her after their conversation in the elevator. After his death, Luisa finds some of the letters from Frobisher (which Sixsmith always carried with him) in an envelope with a pressed-in address which turns out to be his niece. Thus Luisa was able to contact his niece who had the information she needed from her uncle Sixsmith on the power plant.

  2. In the next life Jim Broadbent's character is given and reads Halle Berry's manuscript which details the corruption of the power plant and thus his character is inspired to "rebel" against the nursing home and break out of it so that he could have it published (because he finds it a fascinating thriller which would get him back on his feet again) and thus re-establish his career. Of course Jim Broadbent's character has a movie made based on his life/adventure called, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," in which one line, "I will not be subjected to criminal abuse," inspires the next reincarnation of this character to break her conditioning and side with the revolutionaries in the year 2144 (Sonmi-451). Sonmi-451's speech during the revolutionary battle, and her confession to one of the prison investigators whom she convinces of the corruption and horror of the government in her time, basically becomes a bible, gets passed down through generations, and she herself becomes a goddess for the people in the year 2321. Halle Berry's character is the last reincarnation in the year 2321 and her character (a student who studied the real origins of Sonmi-451 and her Orison) helps to save even the “lowliest” remnants of humanity (thanks to Sonmi’s teachings) by moving them to an off-world colony as the earth is dying, thus protecting the future of the human race. It’s kind of funny but in each reincarnation the character with the birthmark reads or hears something they wrote in a previous life (inspired by the events of that life) that shape their current reincarnation and the path they follow. It's definitely a complex story but looking at it from a broader perspective you can see how each storyline is connected to the other and how each character, no matter how small or little their contribution seems, helped to shape the future.

  3. It’s a great movie, but not perfect. There was barely any emotional-connection I had with this movie and I don’t know why that was, but it just did not work out so perfectly for me in the end. Nice review Chris.