Synopsis: An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Running Length: 172 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: After returning from a screening of Cloud Atlas I looked up the definition of “epic” : Long, narrative poem in an elevated style that celebrates heroic achievement and treats themes of historical, national, religious, or legendary significance. These conventions include the centrality of a hero, sometimes semidivine; an extensive, perhaps cosmic, setting; heroic battle; extended journeying; and the involvement of supernatural beings.”
Knowing that, I have to say that Cloud Atlas is the very definition of an “epic” film. Not just because it clocks in at a bladder testing two hours and 52 minutes and contains one of the more challenging narratives of any film since The Tree of Life. No, it achieves “epic” status in my book because of its grandly ambitious nature and its beating heart that takes the viewer on a voyage within themselves to ask questions about life, death, where we come from, and where we may be going.
What’s amazing on the outset is that the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s twisty tome (which, I’ll admit, I’ve yet to read but it’s now on my iPad waiting for me) was made into a film at all. By all standards of Hollywood, a three hour overlapping story told across multiple races, places, and times wouldn’t get the rubber stamp of approval from any movie studio head with an eye on the bottom line. And that, my friends, is why the film was independently produced and then snapped up by Warner Brothers for worldwide distribution. I’m doubtful that the finished product would have resembled what it does now had Warner Brothers (or any studio) been involved from the outset. It’s a film that no mainstream studio would put their production costs behind…period…end of story.
It was left to directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer to adapt Mitchell’s book and bring to life his vivid and precise characters. The visionary brother/sister directors behind The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer, and Bound make for a dynamic pairing with German wunderkind Tykwer (Run Lola Run) with each director bringing his/her cinematic language to the screen in a way that makes the entire ship run smoothly. Really six movies in one, The Wachowskis and Tykwer split the movies in half and used the same cast members for each story. This leads to some interesting results and some head-scratching moments…but more on that later.
I usually shy away from giving away too much of a film I’m reviewing but I feel in the case with Cloud Atlas that touching briefly on the six stories won’t spoil anything for the viewer. The film opens in linear fashion by taking us through all the different points of history and future we will be visiting: the 18th century, the 1930’s, the 1970’s, the present, 100 years in the future, and 100 years after that. This is a movie in a constant state of motion that doesn’t need to stick to this linear structure for long. The movie jumps across space and time on a regular basis with very little (at first) linking the stories together.
I’ve heard that the first 100 pages of the novel were difficult for some to get through and the same goes for the movie. I’ll admit that it took me a good forty five minutes to really gel with the rhythm that the directors have set-up for us. Like viewing Shakespeare, though, if you make it through the adjustment period you’ll find something special awaits you and the rewards are plenty. Once the flow of the film has been established it takes off like a rocket with well-timed action sequences that play in harmony with tender moments displaying the human spirit.
Both The Wachowskis and Tykwer have excelled in the past with creating brave new worlds of information within their films and Cloud Atlas is no exception. There’s so much to observe in the details and small hints that a second viewing of the movie is pretty much required. As it ponders the origins of our humanity and our growing reliance on technology, the movie begins to rail against the trappings of just being a statement about oppression and distance. It’s a melting-pot of themes…and I don’t say that to indicate that it can’t decide on what kind of movie it is. The Wachowskis and Tykwer know exactly what film they were crafting and that all the pieces have the same cinematic voice show a unity in design.
While the films may share a similar voice, it’s interesting to note how different they all look to the viewer. The 19th Century storyline looks directly out of Horatio Hornblower, while the 1930’s has a Talented Mr. Ripley quality to it. The 70’s arc is set in San Francisco and Tykwer nails the production design that suggests a Bullitt meats Foxy Brown vibe. The present day film has a crisp and comedic appeal while The Wachowskis tap into The Matrix for inspiration for their film sent 100 years in the future. The final futuristic film mixes a few different looks from TVs’s Lost to Star Wars to Clan of the Cave Bear for its inspiration.
For their cast, the directors have assembled an international group of actors that are called upon to play a variety of different ages, genders, races, etc. It’s almost like repertory theatre as you pick out who is playing who in each different story. It’s mostly easy to see the stars (just watch the variety of fake noses on display) but what I found more interesting was trying to pick out some of the secondary characters that pop up from piece to piece.
Hanks and Berry play major roles in most of the pieces, but in a few they are in blink and you miss ‘em cameos. Berry has had a rocky road after winning her Oscar for Monster’s Ball in 2002. Falling victim to the Oscar curse, she’s chosen roles either beyond her depth or taken bit parts that don’t suit her. In Cloud Atlas, Berry finally shines again in what can be seen as a pseudo-comeback performance. She’s the center of the story for the 1970’s sequence and fills out every vessel of her character, shaping her into someone we have a vested interest in.
Hanks, on the other hand, gets very close to Nicolas Cage acting territory in an overall performance that can be summed up as spotty. I found Hanks to be a little above it all, performing more than acting. Though I racked my brain for a contemporary that would have been better suited for the role (perhaps Michael Fassbender?), Hanks seems like a choice made more for securing funding rather than someone who should be grounding much of the film. At his best, he reminds you of the better parts of Cast Away. At his worst, he’s lost in a cockney accent that would make a junior high production of My Fair Lady sound like the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Hanks and Berry are also stuck in the most problematic film set furthest in the future. Speaking in a language that sounds like a cross between Jodie Foster in Nell and Jar-Jar Binks, you’ll wish that the theater was equipped with subtitles as much of this difficult dialogue is totally lost as if it were a foreign language. Same goes for any scene involving Korean stars Bae or Zhou who handle their roles well but struggle with their limited English.
A curious problem raises its head in the story set in Neo Seoul 100 years in the future. Bae and Zhou are featured prominently in the piece but all of the other non Korean actors are made up to look Korean with uncomfortable results. While it’s not as offensive as blackface would be, there’s something that seems really wrong with using prosthetics to turn actors like D’Arcy, Weaving, and Sturgess into futuristic Korean citizens complete with accents. On the other hand, Bae, Zhou, and Berry also appear as white women in other storylines so it’s not as if just one race is singled out. In a film that celebrates diversity and is actually about cross-cultural exchanges, this seems counterintuitive to the overall message being broadcast. I’m interested to hear what moved the directors to go this far with the multiple actors in multiple roles aspect of the film…it certainly leaves them open for controversy.
Editor Alexander Berner certainly had his work, um, cut out for him with this film. Doing work that should be heralded come award season, he should be credited with keeping the movie as cohesive as it is…he must have had a gigantic amount of material to cut together but it all winds up making sense. Equally as important is the striking work by production designers Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch who help to create scenic elements that are period perfection. Cinematographers Frank Griebe and John Toll collaborate well with their directors to achieve a synergy in their technique that clearly is the work of two different artists but moves easily within styles and eras.
Continuing his long standing tradition of composing the music for his films, Tykwer works with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek to create a score including the titular Cloud Atlas sextet – signifying the six interlocking stories. It’s a lushly beautiful music that feels strangely familiar while still breaking new grounds of composition.
I’ve decided over the course of writing this review that another screening of Cloud Atlas is going to be on the top of my list once I’ve had time to full process this first viewing. There are so many hints about how the stories weave together and an abundance of shared themes that it just can’t all be taken in with one viewing. I can understand how this movie won’t be for everyone and can see that it will divide a large section of its audience. I started off very unsure of the film and wary of its narrative style but gradually was so enveloped in its ingenuity and brave storytelling that I never looked back. As the most expensive “independent” film of all time, it’s also the most ambitious film I’ve seen in 2012 (with Cabin in the Woods being a close second) and one that I’m sure will be on my Top 10 List come December 31. I urge you to go into it with an open mind and be a willing traveler on the journey – sit back, feel, enjoy.