Cloud Atlas is a cinematic miracle. It’s a film that I have had to wait for months upon months to finally see in the theatre and on top of premiering on my 18th birthday, it proved to have been worth all of that excruciating waiting. After reading the David Mitchell novel on which it is based during my Egypt trip, replaying the superbly made trailer hundreds of times on YouTube and obsessing over the movie for all those months, I was more than ready to go see it when the day finally arrived.
The film is directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski, together with Tom Tykwer, and stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, David Gyasi and Zhou Xun, playing a maximum of six characters each, in six different storylines, set in six very different time periods. Needless to say, I advice anyone who still thinks of seeing this to make sure their brain is activated beforehand.
The first story (chronologically, anyway) is set in 1849, depicting the voyage of dying American lawyer Adam Ewing (Sturgess) across the Pacific Ocean, alongside his greedy doctor (Hanks), a brutal crew, and a stowaway slave (Gyasi) with whom he forms a friendly bond. The next one, set in 1930’s Scotland, tells the tale of bisexual musician Robert Frobisher (Whishaw) and his attempts to find a job alongside respected composer Vivian Ayrs (Broadbent), who then attempts to take credit for the young musician’s work, the “Cloud Atlas sextet”, as Frobisher re-tells his mishaps in several letters addressed to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (D’Arcy). The third storyline, set in 1973, shows us how American journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) gets too close to a conspiracy that might very well result in nuclear winter, causing her to have a hitman (Weaving) and a corrupt corporate executive (Grant) on her tail. A much older Sixsmith also appears in this story, still played by James D’Arcy, holding the key to the truth behind this conspiracy.
In 2012, a quirky English publisher named Timothy Cavnedish (Broadbent), is on the run from the brothers of a gangster turned author (Hanks) whom he owes money, and eventually ends himself up in a ruthless nursing home he mistook for a hotel, prompting him to plot some manner of escape with his elderly “inmates”. Next up we have the 2144 storyline, set in a dystopian Korea (Neo Seoul), and telling the tale of a fabricant (a type of clone), called Somni-451 (Bae), escaping her slave-like duties as a Papa Song waitress, with the help of a member of a local rebel movement, Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), whom she develops feelings for during their trek around the “pure-blood world”, in spite of her programming. Action ensues.
And then finally, the last story is set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii in 2321, where humanity has gone back to a primitive state, living in huts, hunting their food and speaking very broken English. The main character, a “Valleysman” named Zachry (Hanks), loses his family during a raid by the cannibalistic Kona tribe, but eventually runs into a “Prescient” (Berry), a supreme being who might just help him get to a better place. On their island? On this Earth, even? Who knows. Plagued by visions of the demonic Old Georgie (Weaving) – the Valleysmen’s version of the Devil and one of the best characters in the film – Zachry nevertheless helps his visitor find what she’s looking for.
Okay. Before we proceed: I simply must point out that the romantic relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith is one the sweetest and most lovable ones I’ve ever seen. Indeed, when was the last time a movie couple was a gay one without a single character pointing it out or making it a big deal in the overall story? Honestly, I can name none at the moment! Kudos to that, Tykwer and Wachowskis!
Now as I’ve described these tales to you, I’ve still not mentioned all the characters. I did not say anything of the scientist (Hanks again) who falls in love with Luisa Rey, or Susan Surandon as a shaman in 2321, a bearded man in 2144 and Cavendish’s old flame in 2012, or Keith David as a benevolent hitman, or even some of Weaving’s more complicated roles – an Asian chairman in 2144 and a female nurse in 2012. Truly, there seems to be nothing this film doesn’t have in terms of a diverse cast. Men play women, black women play Jewish women and Asian men – I think the film can best be described as a mix between The Fountain, Neal Stephenson‘s Cryptonomicon and, well, Little Britain.
One can argue, however, whether or not having all these actors appear in different roles is truly necessary. Some of them only appear in insignificant but still heavily made-up background roles and even though this film constantly keeps you guessing who is who, there are other instances of more lacking make-up work, the most sore thumbs being the American actors who were made to look like Asians in the 2144 story, especially Hugo Weaving. But honestly, that is just a minor nitpick on what is otherwise a truly amazing movie.
The connections between these plotlines are hinted at in several ways. A heavy theme in the film is reincarnation, which somewhat explains the way the actors are used; but which soul ends up in which body after it dies in which time period is arguable. Is it determined by which characters are played by the same actors or which characters share that same, peculiar comet-shaped birthmark? Does the soul of Doona Bae’s character perhaps die in 2144 only to be reunited with Sturgess again in 1849? Does the journey of Hanks’ soul move through time chronologically where he starts out despicable in 1849 and ends up a hero in 2321? This can be debated upon, but the way the stories affect each other throughout time remains similar to how it’s done in the book, yet is still told in a way more apt for the big screen.
A character from one time period will, for instance, read or hear about the adventures of the characters from the previous time period and be inspired to do something important in their own story as a result. The motion picture based on Timothy Cavendish’s escape from Aurora House, for example, inspires Sonmi’s escape from her slave-like duties, which in turn makes the Valleysmen in the distant future worship her as their goddess. Themes like cannibalism, slavery and freedom are also repeated throughout time; I’m thinking of the slaves in 1849, the Kona in 2321 and the horrific fate of the Sonmi units in 2144. The connections between the stories in the film is something worth thinking and talking about for days after the credits start rolling, but even if you don’t choose to analyze it, it is still a gorgeous and captivating spectacle of photography and sound.
This film is almost three hours long and it takes splendid advantage of its runtime. Every scene feels essential to the story and it is paced in a way that doesn’t inspire a single look at the watch. The multiple plotlines help create a uniquely captivating movie since it means we have multiple stakes and therefor multiple climaxes, making it one of the most enthrallingly intense movies I’ve ever seen. It is a skillfully edited mix of comedy, action, drama and a nice bit of violence, set to an absolutely magnificent soundtrack, composed by Tykwer himself. The actors play their many roles beautifully and even though the prosthetics and make-up aren’t always first-rate, it is still admirably ambitious and sometimes hard to tell who plays whom. Who, for example, was able to spot Hugh Grant as the Kona chief at first glance? Is this film for everyone? Certainly not, but it is definitely for me and I can only advice you to give this astounding film a watch!
What’s hilarious though is that a majority of the negative criticism I’ve encountered doesn’t actually criticize the film itself, but those who liked it, claiming that they only like it in order to appear smarter than everyone else. I love Cloud Atlas. I love how the stories intersect like a J.S. Bach fugue, I love the way the directors succesfully balance the tone in-between segments, I love the giant cast of colorful characters, I love seeing actors like Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant play bad guys for a change, I love the way events affect each other over the span of centuries, I love gazing upon the beautifully shot settings, I love the enthralling visual effects, I love the patterns in theme and motif, and I love how the Wachowskis and Tykwer found a spot-on way to adapt a book that many, including myself, thought would be totally unfilmable. Those are the reasons I and many others loved Cloud Atlas. Not because we want to appear smarter than you “haters”, but if that’s seriously the best you guys can conjour up in terms of contructive criticism, aside from whining about how you thought the film was too “confusing”, could you honestly blame us for thinking that?
Cloud Atlas is nevertheless a brilliantly made film. It was worth the tedious wait, it was worth our trip to Stockholm, it was worth the three hours and it was even worth the 30 minutes that were wasted on waiting for the projectionist to get the subtitles working again, ultimately resulting in a refund and watching the remainder of the film in peace after the impatient riff-raff had left the theatre in rage. I could not have wished for a better 18th birthday.