Cloud Atlas (2012)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Brody Nicholas Lee, Martin Wuttke, Robert Fyfe, Mya-Lecia Naylor.

Director: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Date: October 26, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

Cloud Atlas Productions, X-Filme Creative Pool, Anarchos Pictures, Ascension Pictures, Five Drops, and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Written by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski; adapted from the novel “Cloud Atlas” by David Marshall..

This review was featured at The Rogue Valley Messenger.
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(out of 5 stars)

No matter what anyone may take away from the comments I will make regarding the epic and uncategorizeable Cloud Atlas, let me be distinctive and clear.

Cloud Atlas is important filmmaking; necessary even in how it challenges conventions, raises the bar on what is possible in making a film nowadays, and retains an almost unparalleled ambition and scope, the likes of which we see only once in a great while.  Simply for its sheer audacity and fearless step off the edge into unchartered waters, Cloud Atlas is truly rare, a gift of a film, that people will be talking about for years and decades to come.

Many will love and hate it in equal measure.  The opinions will range across the spectrum.  Many will feel it is pretentious, overlong garbage, while just as many will think it is among the greatest films they will see in their lifetime.  Scores of people will revisit it over and over again, dissecting every last moment of its 172 minute running time, and God forbid, if directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski ever release a Director’s Cut of the film.  Others will turn it off or walk out of the theater 20, 40, or 60 minutes in, citing confusion, silliness, and espousing it as one of the worst things they have ever seen.

And that, in a microcosm, defines Cloud Atlas as existing as the very definition of art.  Any creation that can spark such rancorous debate and discussion has to be, by its very existence, a success, yes?  Well…

Cloud Atlas is a 6-part story which crisscrosses over hundreds of years.  With its origins beginning c.1850 on a broken down ship somewhere out on the Pacific Ocean, we also meet a young musician in 1930s Belgium, an investigative reporter working on a nuclear power plant story in 1970s California, an arrogant and detached British book publisher in present-day 2012, a fabricant (i.e. clone) in a dystopian Korea, known as Neo Seoul in the year 2144, and tribal soldiers existing and surviving some 106 Years After The Fall.  Unlike the highly praised and widely loved book of the same name by David Mitchell, which tells these tales in a linear 1-6 and 6-1 format, Cloud Atlas the movie jumps in and out of these stories at will.  Honestly, the film is easier to follow and more accessible than you might think.

The relatively small ensemble of actors that Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings utilize are represented in constantly evolving characters and appear obviously, and not so obviously, in all the stories.

In the 1850s, studious lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) learns of the enslavement of native people and crosses paths with Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), who tends to Ewing when he suddenly becomes stricken with a rapidly progressing illness on the battered ship.  As Ewing is bedridden, he writes his thoughts in a journal and befriends and aids a native slave, Autua (David Gyasi), who in turn repays the shelter and kindness afforded to him, when Ewing only becomes sicker and sicker.

In Belgium, we find composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) deeply in love with his muse of sorts, Rufus Sexsmith (James D’Arcy), but torn with his decision to leave Rufus for the opportunity to work with the famed and emotionally frazzled composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent).  Frobisher agrees to work as Ayrs’ amanuensis, with the hopes that he can create beloved new compositions with Ayrs, which he hopes will open a pathway towards having his own compositions recorded, with long desired fame and fortune to follow.  Together they compose the “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, which a reporter in 1973 California finds in a discount used record store.

That reporter, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), has unearthed findings that a new nuclear power plant being built in the hills of California is unsafe and begins work with a nuclear physicist named Rufus Sexsmith to further investigate her discoveries.  Working with Sexsmith offers Rey the opportunity to read and review letters Sexsmith received from Frobisher, offering insight into Sexsmith’s hidden and pained past.

Publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is in an untenable business arrangement with gangster Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), whose memoirs of a life in organized crime has not sold well.  In arranging the deal with Hoggins, Cavendish made financial promises he cannot honor and escapes from Hoggins’ gang into the confines of a safe and comfortable hotel.  Cavendish receives a transcript regarding the events involving Luisa Rey and Rufus Sexsmith, but soon comes to realize that his living arrangements and the situation he finds himself in are not at all what they appear to be.

Cavendish’s remarkable story is dramatized in a highly regarded motion picture where a scant few minutes of the film are watched and coveted by a fabricant in dystopian 2144 Korea.  The fabricant, known as Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is merely one of countless other clones who work at a disturbing fast food restaurant, but begins to awaken to thwe realities of what is happening around her.  She meets and falls in love with soldier Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), who imparts his knowledge on Sonmi-451′s perceptions and aids in developing her awareness.

The story of Somni-451 is viewed holographically via a device known as an Orison, and is viewed by a goat herder named Zachry (Hanks), who meets an alien named Meronym (Berry), who represents the last remnants of a civilization aware of what life was like before “The Fall”.

As the film’s tagline reads plainly, “Everything Is Connected”, and truly here everything is connected – through the actors playing multiple roles, the stories all threading into one another, and the common elements of trust, love, humanity, and determination which define every last one of these characters – both in ways good and bad.

As you experience Cloud Atlas, you cannot help but be engrossed with all of the information, the characters, the storylines, the details Tykwer and the Wachowskis feast upon you.  Something is constantly happening and the fact that the stories are told in mostly linear paths, allows for the jumping in and out of stories to retain accessibility, even if the connections the directors and writers wish for you to take are not always so clear and understood.

The villains which are common through each story are often played by actors Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving, although Tom Hanks gets a run at a couple of unsavory types as well.  Utilizing a mix of CGI technology, rotoscoping, and traditional makeup, most, but not all, of the recurring actors’ appearances are impressively staged and presented.  Perhaps intentional in its shock value, recognizing Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratchett-style caretaker, or Hugh Grant as a blood-thirsty tribal warrior, or Tom Hanks as a ruthless British gangster all risk pulling invested viewers out of the narrative, which requires studious and devoted attention.

Cloud Atlas asks a lot of its viewers and in my estimation, it asks a bit too much.  From its simple premise of leaping in and out of six stories all at once, I have to ask if David Marshall’s novel was that much of a problem to adapt, so as to not follow its format.  At times, the editing comes too quick, too haphazardly.  This narrative approach also comes at the cost of some of the stories delivering emotional payoffs.  I certainly did not have a stopwatch to calculate how much time each story receives, but only two stories packed any emotional impact with me whatsoever.  The others I quickly cared less and less about as time distanced me from them.

For starters, forget Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent.  If there is an Oscar nomination to be had anywhere within this film it comes with the heartwrenching and beautiful portrayal of Robert Frobisher by Ben Whishaw.  His turn as the composer to be, leaving his heart open and exposed in his writings to the lover he left back home, that he likely knows he may never see again, is among the finest performances of the year.  Arguably, Whishaw is the only truly human performance here.  Stripped of any directorial pretension, he shines through all of this beautifully and achingly real, in a film full of synthetics.  Likewise, Doona Bae’s rousing turn as a clone with a mind and an incrasingly defiant activism may carry with it a love interest, but here fabricant is a wholly realized female character that permeates through the meanderings of a busy screenplay and hits you right in the heart.

At the end of the day, Cloud Atlas is a whole lot of everything, but little of what truly makes a film special.  I was mesmerized the entire time, but also annoyed when I should have been transfixed, frustrated when and where stories dropped in and out, and wondering why this film had to work so incredibly hard to tell six reasonable and intriguing stories in such a verbose and sonorous manner.  There is little subtlety here and in a film of 172 minutes of jump cuts, quick edits, and style, style, and more style, at the expense of tangible substance, the whole endeavor becomes grating at times.

And yet, Cloud Atlas is an achievement of unparalleled skill and ambition.  Truly, it is as risky and brave a project I have ever seen accomplished on this scale.  I have to commend the filmmakers for aiming for whatever lies beyond the moon and the stars.  The beauty you find here may be fleeting, but the bravery in composing Cloud Atlas is inspiring.  I just wish the inspiration was a reward we all could reap the benefits of, as opposed to leaving it at the feet of three filmmakers who may have lost their rudders, steering this ship to its final resting place.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • See it for the ambition, the bravado, the massive scale of the project.  Keep an open mind and see how that works for or against your experience.
  • Doona Bae is great, but Ben Whishaw is fantastic here.
  • Those who read the book will wonder how on earth did they film an “unfilmable book.”
NO
  • At 172 minutes, those who fear this will be pretentious and overwrought, will likely have those perceptions validated.  Cloud Atlas does little in the way of overcoming the obstacles doubting viewers will place upon it without ever having seen a frame of it.
  • I know a number of people who will hate every second of this film.  Everything is simply too much and for a lot of viewers, that will shut them out instantly.
  • People who have read the book that have seen the film are not happy at all that the why the film tells the story is different that the book.  A backlash could emanate.
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