Cloud Atlas: A review

I know this came out months ago, and I should have reviewed it then, but it was in town for about ten minutes, so I had to wait for Netflix to come through for me.  But it’s such a remarkable movie, so unusual and dense, I thought I should still try to persuade you to check it out.  This often happens with a certain kind of terrific movie.  They’re so ambitious and so different, so unlike mainstream cinema, they tend to not do well on initial release.  They need to find their audience.  When I was teaching, I liked to show The Fountain (which Cloud Atlas greatly resembles) in class.  Inevitably, some students wouldn’t like it much.  But others would be completely blown away, would want to stay after class to talk about it, would rent it and watch it with their roommates and friends, and years later, would still want to stop by and talk about it.  Cloud Atlas is one of those. It also reminds me of The Tree of Life,my favorite films of the last five years, which is another of those love-it-or-hate it films.  Maybe Babel–multiple stories, and a ‘all things are connected’ message.  It’s one of those.

66% on Rotten Tomatoes.  And I read some of the reviews, the really negative ones and the puzzled-but-positive ones, and agreed with all of them, except those who found it boring.  It’s never boring.  Confusing, yes, a bit; I wished I could see it twice.  A film that requires effort, even to sort out its various stories.  But also beautiful and maybe even a little profound, though perhaps not in the way the filmmakers intended.

So I’m on my third paragraph, and I still haven’t told you anything about the movie.  Cloud Atlas tells six different stories.  This Wikipedia article isn’t a bad introduction.  The stories are delineated by date and location.

1) South Pacific 1849: an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) forms a friendship with an escaped slave stowaway (David Gyasi), who he saves and who saves him; he’s also nearly murdered by a doctor (Tom Hanks) he thought of as a friend.

2) Cambridge and Edinburgh, 1936: a bi-sexual musician (Ben Whishaw) works as amanuensis for an elderly composer (Jim Broadbent), who he eventually murders, then composes a masterpiece, the story told through his correspondence with a friend (James D’Arcy) and lover.

3) San Francisco, 1973: a journalist (Halle Berry) learns of a deadly plot by an energy company and befriends a scientist/whistleblower (Tom Hanks), but is nearly murdered (by evil magnate Hugh Grant) while trying to put the story together.

4) UK, 2012: an elderly publisher (Jim Broadbent), threatened by the thuggish relatives of one of his writers (Tom Hanks), goes to his brother (Hugh Grant) for help; the brother puts him, against his will, in a terrifying old folks home (run by Hugo Weaving), from which he eventually escapes.

5) Neo-Seoul Korea, 2144: a fabricant (Doona Bae), a human clone, lives in servitude, working as server at a diner.  Rescued by a rebel leader (Jim Sturgess), she becomes prophetess of a revolutionary movement.

6) The Big Island, 2321: after a world-wide cataclysm, a primitive Valley tribesman (Tom Hanks) is visited by a high tech ‘prescient’ (Halle Berry), a member of the sub-set of his society who still have some technology.  (Susan Sarandon plays a tribe priestess, and Hugo Weaving, a demon).  Together, they actuate what appears to be a kind of rescue beacon.

You probably noticed the same actors names over and over up above.  Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Doona Bae make up the cast, all of them playing multiple roles. I’m pretty sure Hanks, Weaving, Sturgess and Berry are in all of them.  But the makeup and costuming is so remarkable that for some of the roles it’s not until the final credits that we recognize the characters they’ve played.  In the 2012 story, a foul-mouthed writer character, angry at how poorly his book has sold, spices up sales by deliberately murdering a critic–it took me a second to recognize Tom Hanks in the role.  In the same story, ‘Nurse Noakes,’ a sociopathic nurse a la Louise Fletcher’s immortal Nurse Ratched (in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), ferociously bullies poor old Jim Broadbent; it wasn’t until the closing credits that I realized Noakes was played by Hugo Weaving.  Nor did I recognize Hugh Grant as a vicious cannibal warlord.

But the casting of familiar actors in a variety of roles helped the film thematically.  All the stories have connections and resonances, they all circle back on each other thematically and narratively.  Doona Bae is extraordinary as Sonmi-351, the fabricant waitress-turned-prophetess in the 2144 story.  But her call for freedom is based, in part, on a film she’s seen (the only film she’s ever seen), which is about Jim Broadbent’s escape from the nursing home, (Jim Broadbent’s character, in this putative fictionalization of the ‘real-life’ story we’ve seen, is supposedly played by Tom Hanks).  And Sonmi becomes the goddess worshipped by the Valley people in the 2321 story.  And so on.

Oh, and in the final story, the 2321 story, the characters speak a kind of argot, a pidgin English that is itself pretty hard to understand.  And the film begins and ends with an elderly looking Tom Hanks talking to his people in a language we don’t entirely get.  Another barrier to communication.  And one I loved.

Is the film confusing?  Yes.  Does it make sense?  Not initially, no.  But if you give it some time, you do get which story you’re watching at any given time, and you do sort out what’s happening in each one.  And they’re incredible stories, very compelling and powerful.

The film is based on a David Mitchell novel, one of those terrific novels that get labeled ‘unfilmable.’  It was directed by three directors: Tom Tykwer (director of Run Lola Run, plus many other wonderful and experimental films, and Andy and Lana Wachowski, who wrote and directed The Matrix, in addition to other films.

If you’re the type of audience member who doesn’t like graphic violence, sexuality or bad language, the film does have moderate amounts of all three.  My wife is such a viewer, and she watched the whole film; said it was right at the edge of her willingness to put up with disturbing images. It’s definitely R-rated, but then its stories are about violence and the possibility of human love; I didn’t find any part of it gratuitous.  It’s also a very long film, just shy of three hours, though I found every second of it completely compelling.

It’s a strange and wonderful film.  It isn’t like anything else, and at times, it’s extraordinarily beautiful.  It doesn’t entirely hold together, and I certainly wish I could have seen it again.  But my gosh, I would surely rather see something like this, a big, ambitious mess, than yet another Hollywood thriller or romcom.  If you like weird and unusual films, this should go to the top of your list.  If you don’t like strange films, don’t bother.

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