Review by Ken Burke
Six time periods from past to distant future are interwoven using a large cast of characters with many of the actors in multiple roles; long but fascinatingly complex.
With Cloud Atlas (co-directed and co-screenwritten by Lana [previously Larry, prior to a gender switch] and Andy Wachowski [of Matrix trilogy fame (1999, 2003) and Tom Tykwer [of Run, Lola, Run fame (1998)], based on British writer David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name) we have a film that should lend itself easily to my style of reviewing because it rambles around as much as I do, stumbling upon connections that aren’t always that clear (or even valid, depending on your perspective) at first, as we work our way to some sort of closure that may bring together all that has been presented throughout the narrative. But, I’ll have to admit that when you (or at least I) try to combine conceptual-cluster analysis with conceptual-cluster content it becomes such a convoluted experience to even think about, let alone write about, that it’s hard not to just spew out thoughts in total incoherence (as if that’s really so different from my usual output). So, bear with me as we try to unravel a very complex film that implies continuity and connectivity across vast reaches of time and space but also allows the interpretation that this web of people and events are more randomly positioned along the spatiotemporal continuum than the plots would imply, as characters and their actions are seemingly linked in ways more consistently than they may actually be, just because some specific objects (a journal, a musical composition, some letters, a novel, a film, a political manifesto) do turn up from one era to the next. So, rather than try to recapture how these six stories are constantly intercut with their various action and conceptual matches (and frequent, intentional mismatches—or just non-matches, but all done to keep rushing the stories into your perceptual field) I’m going to try to deconstruct and reconstruct Cloud Atlas in more of a linear fashion in hopes of making the best sense of what’s going on and what’s valuable in the takeaway from seeing this (uncredited) Einstein-inspired audiovisual collage (with an admission at the start of this review that I tried like hell to follow all of the character names and locations in this compelling but at times overwhelming presentation, with attempts through various sources to verify my scribbly notes later, although that didn't always help much, but if I've got a few facts wrong here or there, my apologies; I doubt that any such slip-up would be disastrous to your later viewing of Cloud Atlas, armed with the priceless information I impart here, but if so just blame it on the ebb and flow of my personal time-space continuum).
To begin at the beginning—relative to who does what when—we’re in the South Pacific in 1849 (a segment directed by the Wachowskis) with Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an American lawyer who witnesses the enslavement of Moriori tribesmen, encounters a runaway slave, Autua (David Gyasi), as a stowaway on his ship, comes to respect the dignity of his newfound companion especially when Autua saves him from being slowly poisoned by Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) who simply wants to kill Ewing in order to steal his chest of gold coins, and finally returns to San Francisco where he and his fiancée defy her obnoxious father and his economic investment in slavery by declaring their intention to move east to support the abolitionist movement. This is the most straightforward and comprehendible of the Cloud Atlas sextet in terms of narrative motivation and outcome, although with the fragmentation of all of these stories you won’t get close to resolution of Ewing’s near-demise until the whole of our journey is almost complete and all of the individual explorations find their endings through a lot of last-minute salvations.
We then jump to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1936 (in a segment directed by Tykwer) where destitute young composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whisaw) leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), behind in Cambridge, England in order to find employment and mentorship from famed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent, with Berry cast as his wife, Jocasta, who has an affair with presumably bisexual Robert), only to have the maestro claim authorship of Frobisher’s masterpiece, The Cloud Atlas Sextet, simply because he had the original inspiration for snatches of the music and because his reputation allowed such marginalization of his unknown apprentice. Things end badly for Frobisher in that both his lost claim to fame for the composition (along with the love he shows for both the creative process and its haunting result, which dominates the soundtrack of our film) and the inability to reconnect to his romantic love, Sixsmith, leaves him alone, unknown, and, finally, dead long before his time through a suicide brought on by his fear that Ayrs will send him to prison (although he does provide a time bridge to the first story in that he finds a partial version of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing in which he learns something of what we come to know about his supposedly unconnected predecessor).
Next stop on our journey (also directed by Tykwer) is San Francisco again, now in 1973 where crusading journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is trying to expose a scandal about the cover-up of an unsafe nuclear power plant run by smug CEO Alberto Grimaldi (Hugh Grant). Along the way she gets help and damning secret documents from a scientist who turns out to be the older version of Sixsmith (D’Arcy) from the 1936 story (Rey also gets the collection of love letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith), but he’s murdered by an assassin, even as another informant from the power plant, Isaac Sachs (Hanks), is killed by a bomb hidden in his airliner which explodes soon after takeoff. Rey almost joins them in the afterlife (or the reincarnation runway, depending on how you interpret the implications in this film) when her car is pushed off a bridge into the cold depths of the bay. Water pressure collapses her windshield so she swims to safety, only to be pursued again before being saved by Joe Napier (Keith David), an associate of her father (another crusading journalist, now deceased), after which her exposé shuts down the deadly nuclear plant.
When watching the film’s events unfold in their jumbled chronological fashion it may not be as apparent as it is in this more streamlined recounted version that in the first 4 stories we hopscotch between San Francisco (at least at the end of Ewing’s near-ill-fated voyage) in the first and third narratives and Great Britain in the second and fourth. As we come into the fourth encounter we're in 2012 London (Tykwer directing again) where we find nervous publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) harassed by the goon brothers (not “goony” as with Peter Sellers and his 1950s BBC wacky radio mates but actual goons, as in gangsters) of one of his clients, a hot-headed homicidalist, Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), who wrote a book but ends up in jail for throwing a critical critic off of a high-rise balcony. The thugs insist on royalties which Cavendish tries unsuccessfully to produce by the demanded time, even when he attempts to borrow the money from his brother. In fact, the brother has his own scheme against Timothy, arranging for false imprisonment in a nursing home as revenge for an affair that Timothy carried on with his sister-in-law. Through a clever scheme of his own, our intrepid publisher and a few accomplices escape their confinement, encourage a pub crowd of “true Scotsmen” to beat the bejesus out of their pursuers, and vanish back to their former lives with Cavendish finally giving in to his desires to express his long-languishing love for Ursula (Susan Sarandon), resulting in them living happily ever after as he decides to write his ordeal into a screenplay. This segment is clearly intended as the comic relief of Cloud Atlas (assuming you find throwing literary critics off a balcony to be hilarious—just don’t get any ideas about doing that with film critics, ya hear?) with Cavendish taking a pointed poke at this very film by saying he’s against flashback and flashforwards as literary devices despite being immersed in a structure that constantly hurls us as a viewing audience around a timeline that would make our great space-time prophet Albert Einstein dizzy from over-observation of evidence.
(Besides the previous writings introduced in this film from Ewing and Cavendish, another one briefly shown in this 2012 story requires me to make my own digression—in the spirit of both my normal criticism rambles and the fragmented nature of the narrative[s] flow of Cloud Atlas—so, as usual, please bear with me for a bit. While on a train at one point Cavendish is reading Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery which seems to be a fictionalized version either of what we get in the 1973 story or a recitation of the Frobisher-Sixsmith tragedy [honestly, I couldn’t follow that part], presumably written by Luisa—just as Cavendish will later write about his own adventures in the nursing home as a screenplay that becomes a movie seen in the next story, the one set some 100 years from now. But unless I just missed it [not hard to imagine given all that I was trying to keep up with in watching Cloud Atlas while attempting to take notes] I’m not aware of Luisa actually writing such, nor can I get a clear statement on that from any summary of Cloud Atlas that I’ve seen, although, interestingly, in the original novel the Luisa Rey narrative is presented as a mystery story. [At least according to detailed summaries which, in this case, I have found of Mitchell’s original. What? You didn’t expect me to read that too, did you?] So, if there’s a possibility that Cavendish has something that doesn’t actually come from the Rey narrative but is just a part of his 2012 world does that mean that her travails were just fiction that exists only in Cavendish’s story? But if so then the connections she has through Frobisher’s letters to the 1936 story and Frobisher’s awareness through Ewing’s journal of the 1849 one would all have to be fictional backstory to Luisa’s 1973 fiction, reducing the first three stories in Cloud Atlas to simply being entertainment contrivances for the pleasure of 2012 readers in Cavendish's story, although for our pleasure they’ve also been brought to life on screen. We could take this a step further—that is after you’ve read about the last 2 future-set narratives still to come—and say that even though we’ll see evidence in the 22nd century Korea story of characters there being aware of the Cavendish movie [where we get the further twist of Hanks now playing an even more fictionalized version of Broadbent’s character] and then their world is referenced in the last story with a manifesto written by the lead female Korean character [which is like scripture to the pastoral inhabitants of post-apocalyptic, decimated Earth], maybe that manifesto was just written by someone prior to or after the transformative event that ended civilization as we know it as an inspiration to reclaim some sense of the human condition so that even the Korea story and all of its antecedents throughout Cloud Atlas are just fictions to this last episode, just as the world that Neo [Keanu Reeves] thought he inhabited in the original Matrix is all a fabrication that doesn’t exist in the tangible reality that contained his once-slumbering body before his enlightenment.
You know, if all of this is plausible then maybe even what we see at the end of the film in the most distant future is all just fiction as well, the visualization of a multi-episodic story that’s about this collection of intertwined eras but it’s only a metanarrative that transcends all of them, a superstory written in an ever-further-distant future time … or, wait, if the whole thing is just part of an overarching multi-story narrative then it could have been written in … 2004 … by some guy from England … and then made into a movie by some folks who’ve already made their own trippy cinematic epics … and then we’d have … Cloud Atlas! “Whoa!” indeed. But, if Luisa Rey did write something as a mystery novel then all of this speculation about levels of fiction within fiction would just be … fiction. Yet, given the wide web of possibilities presented in this very fascinating although rambling film, my flight of fiction could be just as valid as the film’s conceit that everything we see is real from age to age [including the aging of Hanks’ final character]. How are we to know what to make of all this? We don’t know anything really, but even the convolutions and speculations in this last runaway pair of paragraphs resonates with the sense and tone of Cloud Atlas, so maybe just reading all of this speculative prose will give you some of the feel of this unique, confounding—and, yes, quite lengthy—cinematic spectacle, even if you choose not to see it. [And if so, you could at least send me half of the 10 bucks I’ve saved you by just immersing you in the chaos of my review rather than the even more overwhelming chaos of the film]. OK, back to linearity.)
For our next trip through time we jump into the 22nd century for a tale (directed by the Wachowskis) of social rebellion set in Neo (They just can’t get away from that name, can they?) Seoul, Korea, a metropolis built upon the largely sunken foundations of (old) Seoul (which makes a nice punning concept, given the reincarnation implications of Cloud Atlas, furthered in this segment by brief mention of an old movie called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish [with Hanks as the actor playing our previously-introduced publisher], based on the nursing home adventure of the previous era—although that 2012 tale is set in the present for us as a viewing audience, just to keep the confusion level at a high-water mark), at a time when further environmental concerns with the stability of our planet have the inhabitants worried that additional flooding will be their demise as well (maybe after the high-tide havoc just caused by Hurricane Sandy in our real world’s New Jersey and NYC such depictions won’t be so easily brushed off as science-fiction any more). Here our main character is an android (known as a “fabricant” rather than the “replicants” of mid-21st century Blade Runner [Ridley Scott, 1982—and a couple of director’s cuts to follow]), Sonmi~451(Donna Bae), one of many identical servers (and casual sex objects in the minds of the customers, although an angry 451-lookalike revolts at such an approach only to be executed for her rebellious behavior) at a popular restaurant. 451 is encouraged into a rebellion by a seeming member of the oppressive ruling class, Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess, in pseudo-Asian make-up, a source of actual Asian/Asian-American protest against this film, but given the way that the world has evolved by this futuristic setting I could easily accept his mixed “race” appearance as Eurasian, similar to the Engineer character originally acted by Jonathan Pryce in the play Miss Saigon, also criticized for not casting an actual person of Asian decent in the role as is the case here with Cloud Atlas), which she accepts after learning that fabricants aren’t pleasantly retired as they’re told about their fates but instead are killed to provide food and more fabricants for their resource-strained society (Henry Cavendish makes a non-linear allusion to this in his first attempt at escaping his confinement, shouting the revelation from the Charlton Heston futuristic sci-fi movie Soylent Green [Richard Fleischer, 1973] that “Soylent Green is people!” as if he’s leaving his fellow captives with advice to help their needed escape). Although a government raid on the rebels kills her mentor, Sonmi~451 has already developed an anti-Establishment attitude (a great victory over her inbred subservience) and even writes an anti-authoritarian manifesto before going willingly to her death; her book pops up much later as an inspiration of encouragement for apocalypse-ravaged humans who misinterpret her as divine in the final segment of Cloud Atlas (also directed by the Wachowskis).
In this ultimate era we’re not sure how far away from our present we are (on-screen graphics tell us it’s 106 winters after The Fall), but it’s clearly after the usual futuristic sci-fi movie global disaster which has left the Earth in a state of turmoil where the more pacifistic rural folks such as goat-herder Zachery (Hanks) and his sister (Sarandon) live in constant fear of being marauded by wandering gangs on what we later piece together as the Big Island of Hawaii (sadly enough, the ravagers are called the Kona, giving a negative implication to a great surfside city). Suddenly he’s visited by Meronym (Berry), who comes from afar as a representative of the Prescients, the last group of advanced humans who survived the global catastrophe and are trying to reconnect with other humans who escaped Earth before the tragedy and now live farther off in the cosmos. Although most of Zachery’s tribe are killed by the roving thugs, he survives with Meronym’s help, then leaves Earth with her to settle somewhere close enough to see our planet and moon as larger than they’d look even from Mars (maybe that future technology is sophisticated enough to either tame or create an asteroid with an acceptable atmosphere), allowing us to find the end of our temporal and celestial trek even further into the future after Zachery and Meronym have grown old together and helped bring about a couple of new generations, with the children being told the tale of Zachery’s adventurous life even as we eavesdrop as well throughout the many hours of Cloud Atlas.
As this long-winded review finally winds down, I just couldn’t pass up this shot of Hugh Grant as the head honcho of the far-distant-future Kona brutes. There’s a constant use of fascinating make-up throughout this film to successfully disguise—or at least notably alter—the more well-known faces in the cast (including one instance of Halle Berry as a man in the 2144 Korea story), but this has got to be the most unique role I can imagine Grant inhabiting. As to what all of this multi-inhabitation of many characters by the primary actors means in terms of their various manifestations being reincarnations isn’t clear (at least to me, after a measly single viewing of Cloud Atlas which would likely be a lot easier to digest with at least one other 3-hour reinvestment, but for now I’ll just have to be content to live with my uncertainties). Are those really the eternal spirits of Hanks, Berry, Broadbent, Sturgess, Hugo Weaving (who pops up in several guises as well, some of which are in his familiar killer mode from his Matrix days but at one point he’s [female] Nurse Noakes) reappearing in a grand unfolding narrative across oceans of time or do we just assume that because with a little effort we can recognize the familiar faces under the latex? Or does that even matter as long as we flow along with the seemingly insistent theme that some of us should recognize from another time long, long ago: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” (“I Am the Walrus,” Lennon-McCartney [although seemingly really all Lennon] from Magical Mystery Tour, 1967; take a listen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RG73Pk1yUj8--and “Goo goo g’joob” to you too). Cloud Atlas spins a fascinating yarn of how everything is interconnected, all events and even objects from one era have potential for impact and influence in subsequent eras, and nothing is irrelevant because you never know when and how anything will manifest itself in some future manner that only seems to be a minor chord in the symphony of life if you don’t know the full orchestration patterns to be found upon greater awareness of how the ongoing harmony of time and action are constructed. In that sense it’s a very ambitious film, one with an interesting mix of drama, humor, social consciousness, stunning visuals, ethereal soundtrack elements, and enough cosmic considerations to tide you over through a weekend retreat with your local maharishi.
However, it’s also so big and bold in its constant intersections of the 6 stories in their different locales and narrative attitudes as to be quite difficult to follow at times, a bit too obvious in some of its parallel edits of similar motions by various characters in their different epochs, unclear where this is all going, and a bit too obviously reminiscent of the wonder and mystery of existence that lie at the heart of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011); certainly Cloud Atlas is more direct in its parts than those mesmerizing/maddening (take your pick) allusions to a higher consciousness than can be easily captured on celluloid but beyond the linkages that maintain the continuity from era to era it’s not always that clear to me how interesting the parts of Cloud Atlas are in their individual existences, with the 1849, 1936, and 2012 episodes the most developed while the others feel a bit too much like the truncated Christ and Huguenot stories in D. W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance—there’s still enough left of them so we understand what events are being depicted and how they connect to the larger segments of the whole (the Babylonian and contemporary stories) but they’d be a lot more impactful if so much of their footage hadn’t been lost over the years—as would the whole experience if the original 9 hours survived instead of the “mere” 180-someodd minutes that have been preserved. I know that 1916 audiences weren’t likely to have wanted to see the mammoth movie as originally conceived any more than present-day viewers would likely want to invest more than their existing 3 hours getting into deeper development of each segment of Cloud Atlas, but I can’t help but think that some of this, especially in the last 2 episodes, is more about visual spectacle that’s a bit too familiar from a host of other futuristic sci-fi movies than it is about necessary inclusions that get across the final impact that our 3 directors desired (and there are a lot of breathless rescues in these stories as well, a bit too much of the Griffith influence as those parallels don’t seem as significant as other implications within the interconnected presentations). There’s a lot to like here; however, at times there’s just a lot, period, a bit more than needed to bring it all full circle in the fullest circle of life.
If you’d like to explore Cloud Atlas further here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MXR4MCuA0o (a 30 min. interview with co-directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski—although you don’t get much input from Andy until about 2/3 of the way in when he really starts to open up, then at the end the dialogue fittingly just trails off into a conclusion no more precise than what you get in the film)
We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.