Title: Cloud Atlas
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Writers: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and David Mitchell
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw
Runtime: 172 mins
Genre: Drama, Sci-fi
It’s no easy task describing Cloud Atlas. In a movie that spans across space and time, ranging from a 19th Century ship to a 24th Century Pacific island, there’s a lot to take in with Cloud Atlas. Needless to say, this can be an overwhelming journey for the viewer. In fact, claims were made that David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas” (which the film is adapted from) was impossible to adapt to film. So, how do you attack a project of that scope? Well you bring in three directors, evidently. To tackle this movie, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) teams with the Wachowski Brothers (oops, I mean Andy Wachowski and his “sister” Lana). The project is most certainly an ambitious one. But, the question is whether or not Cloud Atlas has more than admirable ambition to offer.
Cloud Atlas feeds us six stories over the course of this near 3-hour film. The Wachowski’s and Tykwer see fit to present these stories by cutting from plot to plot mid-story, straying from the format of the novel. This proves to make the journey a bit more confusing and disconnecting as it plays out, not fully allowing the viewer to connect with a certain set of characters before sweeping us away to another tale. The confusion and distraction is further exacerbated by the realization that many of these actors are playing multiple roles (it’s like an Eddie Murphy movie here with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry playing 6 roles each). While this is no doubt done to illustrate Mitchell’s theme of reincarnation (symbolized by a comet-shaped birthmark), it ultimately provides no real benefit. Instead, it comes across as a gimmick which turns Cloud Atlas into something of a Three-card Monte game.
The first of the tales (chronologically speaking) we’re shown along the way is that of 19th Century gentleman Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) who finds himself victimized by a dastardly doctor (Tom Hanks), only to be saved by a stowaway slave (David Gyasi). Next up, we journey to the 1930’s where we find young bisexual musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) serving as an amanuensis to aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). In the third of the series, Cloud Atlas turns into a mystery/thriller as we find ourselves in the 1970’s following reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) as she seeks to uncover the truth behind a nuclear power plant conspiracy. Turning the tone to slapstick, the fourth story brings us to present day Britain where publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) finds himself imprisoned in a retirement home. In a dystopian futuristic setting akin to Blade Runner, the fifth story follows a genetically engineered clone, Sonmi (Doona Bae), who rises up against her oppressors to spark a revolution. Finally, the sixth story follows Zachry (Tom Hanks), a farmer in 24th Century post-apocalyptic Hawaii who’s simple world is turned upside-down when he is visited by a woman from a far more sophisticated civilization.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer do a wonderful job of creating these different settings, establishing unique tones between each story that helps to alleviate some of the confusion. The distraction of actors playing multiple roles rears its ugly head again when it comes to the make-up. While some of the make-up work is great (Halle Berry is unrecognizable as a white woman and Hugo Weaving is frighteningly gnarly as Old Georgie), a lot of it is downright laughably horrible. Hugo Weaving as a female nurse (inspired by Nurse Ratched) will make one laugh (that’s laughing at the character, not with it). Meanwhile, Jim Sturgess parading around in “yellow face” as Hae-Joo Chang is so bad you can’t help but shake your head at the make-up job and the casting decisions here.
With these stories being connected by thin strings, Cloud Atlas plays out more like an anthology. And like all anthologies, there are good and bad segments. This is where the cutting format proves to be useful. While Sonmi’s story has the makings of an enthralling sci-fi thriller, others (like the story of Robert Frobisher) are just downright drab. Cutting from one story to another allows us to escape these tedious segments momentarily, thus avoiding to completely eliminate our interest.
Jumping from genre to genre and spanning across multiple settings, Cloud Atlas is certainly an ambitious film. The Wachowskis are known for being visionaries and this movie proves it, yet again. On that merit alone, Cloud Atlas should be applauded for the creativity and initiative it brings to the world of cinema. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve seen before. Narratively speaking, at its best Cloud Atlas is an enterprising series of vignettes which explore interesting themes of human nature. At its worst, the movie is a jumbled mess (aided by the disconnection of aggressive editing) that is neither as pretentious or as enlightening as it could have been. Sure to polarize viewers, Cloud Atlas is one that should be watched, at the very least, for its scope and creative ambition (or to play one interesting game of Where’s Waldo if you’re into that sort of thing).