Cloud Atlas (Germany/U.S./Hong Kong/Singapore, 2012)

October 27, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cloud Atlas Poster

Based on a perusal of reviews for Cloud Atlas, one might be convinced that the sprawling, ambitious, epic adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 novel is either a masterpiece or an unmitigated disaster. The reality is somewhere in between. It's hard to argue that Cloud Atlas isn't too long - discounting the credits, it clocks in at around 160 minutes - and that its rambling structure can result in an emotional disconnect with the material. But there are some amazing sequences and the film's visual style is powerful. They key to successfully absorbing the movie may be in not trying to overthink what's on screen. Decoding the thin strands that connect stories to each other is a journey better embarked upon by those watching it for a second or third time.

As is the case with the book, the movie presents six separate stories that transpire across a slice of time beginning in the mid-19th century and ending in a distant post-apocalyptic future. The first tale, "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," takes place on a ship making a Pacific Ocean crossing and relates the unlikely friendship that develops between a San Francisco notary (Jim Sturgess) and a Maori slave (David Gyasi). Story #2, "Letters from Zedelghem," transpires in 1931 Belgium and tells of the relationship between a young musician (Ben Whishaw) and the aging composer (Jim Broadbent) for whom he works as an amaneuensis. "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" occurs in the 1970s and is designed to mimic thrillers of the era. Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a young journalist who stumbles upon a plot by an oil company executive (Hugh Grant) to allow a nuclear reactor to melt down. The fourth segment, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" is a contemporary tale about a British publisher (Jim Broadbent) who is confined against his will in a bizarre nursing home where aging parents are consigned to live out their lives when their children want them "out of sight, out of mind." "An Orison of Sonmi~451" takes Cloud Atlas into the future (the 22nd century), where a genetically engineered fabricant (Doona Bae) is used by revolutionaries to be the figurehead for their rebellion. The sixth and final story, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" takes place in a time beyond the 22nd century when a primitive tribesman (Tom Hanks) befriends a woman (Halle Berry) who belongs to a technologically advanced culture and makes a bargain with her that changes both their futures.

The connective conceits from the novel are present in the movie but at times difficult to discern. In Cloud Atlas, someone in each story reads (or views) a dramatization of the chronologically previous one. For example, the fabricant Sonmi~451 watches a movie adaptation of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish." In other instances, characters read letters or books. A less successful attempt to link the segments is to have reincarnations of characters appear in different time periods. By employing actors for multiple roles, the filmmakers try to highlight this, but it's questionable whether the often horrendous makeup jobs required to accomplish this undermine the intentions.

The directors of Cloud Atlas are (or were) considered visionaries. The Wachowskis, of course, were behind The Matrix and its sequels. German filmmaker Tom Tykwer is best known for Run Lola Run. Their decision to interleave the stories rather than present them in series makes sense because some are more compelling than others. My favorites were "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" and "An Orison of Sonmi~451." The former is a nice potboiler and the latter is thematically interesting and contains an effective emotional component. On the other hand, I was less-than-enthralled by the inert "Letters from Zedelghem" and the futuristic " Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," which feels like a generic post-apocalyptic tale in which dialogue is often impossible to decipher.

Visually, there's no doubting Cloud Atlas' power to arrest; this is one of those movies that deserves to be seen on a big screen (and, thankfully, there's no 3-D involved). The most eye-popping sequences occur during the 22nd century story, where comparisons to Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and the Star Wars prequels will be made , but the effects work is no less effective (although not as ostentatious) during the other episodes. As good as the computer enhancement is, however, the makeup proves unable to add to the illusion. Tom Hanks is the most negatively impacted by this, although he's not the only one. In far too many scenes, Hanks looks like a middle-aged guy buried under layers of latex.

The filmmakers have assembled a nice combination of A-list stars (Hanks, Berre, Hugh Grant), "serious" actors (Broadbent, Sarandon), less familiar faces (Sturges, Whishaw), and performers largely unknown in North America (South Korean actress Doona Bae). Of all the actors, Hanks gets to have the most fun, playing a profanity-spewing thug out of a Guy Ritchie movie, a sleazy doctor, a self-serving hotel receptionist, a whistleblower, an exaggerated Jim Broadbent, and a futuristic tribesman. Hugo Weaving, who memorably played Agent Smith in The Matrix, appears in all six stories in full villain mode. The poor guy doesn't even get one opportunity to play a sympathetic character, instead essaying (among others) a ruthless hitman, a Nurse Ratched type, and a demonic entity.

Much has been written about the use of "yellow face" in Cloud Atlas - the application of makeup to cause Caucasian actors appear Asian. This has been described as racist (or worse). Those who take the time to consider, however, will recognize that both Doona Bae and Halle Berry play white characters. The "yellow face" makeup applied to several actors is done with a non-malicious purpose: it's to allow the same actors to inhabit different characters across the stories. Case-in-point: Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae. In two of the segments, they are in love. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" requires them to be white; in "An Orison of Sonmi~451," they are Korean. If anything, Cloud Atlas' allowing actors to cross racial lines can be seen as an emphasis of the universality of the human experience rather than a repudiation of it.

Looking for deep meaning or a sense of cosmic convergence in Cloud Atlas may take the viewer down the path to dissatisfaction and frustration. Admittedly, because of its length, its occasional pretentious dialogue, and a tone that hints at intended greatness, there's a tendency to expect more from the movie than what it delivers. Some viewers will no doubt believe they have experienced something more transcendent than what's actually on screen, and who am I to dispute them? However, taken as little more than six disconnected shorts featuring the same group of players in different roles, Cloud Atlas works. It's entertaining and the manner in which it has been edited reduces one's tendency to lose patience with the less engaging stories. It's not an Oscar contender and probably won't break any box office records but, as one of the most expensive indie productions ever assembled, it has accomplished many things - not the least of which is translating an "unfilmable" novel into a motion picture that is both coherent and able to retain the soul of its source material.

Cloud Atlas (Germany/U.S./Hong Kong/Singapore, 2012)