Review: Cloud Atlas

Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski.

Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, Zhou Xun.

Rating:   Running Time: 171 mins.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is a set of six stories set during different times that are tied together by common themes. In each story the decisions and actions taken by the characters influence the stories that follow, and in some cases the stories that came before. The cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Hugo Weaving play roles in each of the separate stories, essentially playing the same souls reincarnated, with one of them the main character of each story.

A different actor plays the central role of each story, with the first set in the 1840’s, where Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is travelling in the south pacific to broker a business deal on behalf of his father in-law. The second story, set in the 1930’s, follows out of work musician Robert Frobisher (Skyfall’s Ben Wishaw) in Scotland as he is employed as an amanuensis to a famous composer. The third follows reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) in 1970’s San Francisco as she investigates the death of a nuclear power plant whistle blower. The fourth, set in present day London, features publicist Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who finds himself committed to an old age pensioners home by his brother that’s run like a prison, and plots his escape.

The fifth and sixth stories take place in the future, with the first set in the 22nd century in Seoul, Korea. Somni-451 (Doona Bae), a genetically engineered clone or ‘fabricant’ who is essentially a serving slave at a restaurant, is freed by a member of a rebellion who wants her to help him expose the truth about fabricant life in an effort to topple the communist regime. The final story, set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian island, has no confirmed date other than ‘106 winters after the fall’. The main character Zachariah (Tom Hanks) lives in a backwards enclave and is visited by a member of a more advanced group, who needs his help to guide her to a communications tower on one of the mountains.

Cloud Atlas is one of those movies that I was waiting a long time to see due to a long delay between it’s U.S. and U.K. releases. It’s been a movie that’s received contrasting reviews from most audiences, with some hating it and others praising it highly. I’ve now seen it twice and can tell you that I am in the latter group. More than that, I intend to see it again. While it does have it’s fair share of problems as any movie does, Cloud Atlas is currently at the top of my list as the best movie that I have seen this year. Directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski have set out to make an adaptation of a book that many have said could not be adapted to movie. While some who have hated the movie would say that is true, as far as I am concerned they have pulled this off, with the three directors each filming separate story segments of the movie and then putting them together for an end result that is both epic and an incredibly beautiful movie. While it was made on a budget of $102 million, it is by no means a blockbuster, it is in fact a independently financed movie, and more than that, it’s a piece of art.

Throughout the whole of the movie, the topics of racism, slavery, imprisonment and equality are touched upon, with the choice to have the cast play roles in each of the six storylines working as an additional commentary on this, as in some of the stories make-up and prosthetics are used to change the race and/or sex of one person to another (in some cases this caused some uncomfortable laughs from the audience). For the most part these are successful, and in some downright exceptional (see Halle Berry in make-up in the second story to see what I mean). While this may distract some, they do work because the cast give great performances throughout, enough that on occasion they disappear into the roles. It wasn’t until the end credits (when there is an image of each role the actors played next to their name) that I realised all of the roles that they had played, and even on second viewing when I knew they were, I still found myself struggling to tell who played the role. One aspect that was difficult to follow was the language used in the final story. It’s a great example of how language changes over time, but on occasion – especially in the early scenes – the language was hard to pick up on, this was something that a second viewing helped with, but perhaps could have been handled differently in production so it was not so hard to follow.

The main issue that a lot of people have had is with the narrative structure of the movie. In the book, the six stories are told separately, whereas here the decision has been made to cut between all six of the stories concurrently. While I can understand how some people may find this hard to follow, I had no issue with keeping track of which storyline was on the screen at any time, and found that the stories being presented in this way allowed for the comparisons and the connections between the stories could more easily be conveyed than if the structure had followed the book. It will be interesting to see if a feature is added on the DVD/Blu Ray release that would allow the viewer to see the six stories separately (a la the special edition of Christopher Nolan’s chronologically reversed thriller Memento) just to see what the final result would look like, but it’s doubtful we’ll be graced with such a thing.

A mention should also be made of the musical score to the movie by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. This is a character in itself, and is a fantastic piece of work as one of the elements that links throughout some of the stories is a composition from a story earlier on where a character composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet. I suggest that anyone who does see the movie stay throughout the end credits as the full piece is played over them and it’s a beautiful piece of music.

I accept that Cloud Atlas is not going to be to everyone’s taste but it should not be dismissed because of some of the reviews it has received. If it were truly as bad as some have made it out to be, it would not hold a 7.8/10 rating on the IMDB voting system. The movie evokes a feeling similar to Darren Aranofsky’s The Fountain (another movie that everyone either loved or hated), with both the philosophical nature and the multiple storyline elements being only a couple of the similarities between the two. The Fountain may be a good way to judge whether you will enjoy this movie, as viewer’s feelings towards both may be similar. Do not go in expecting an easy watch, if you’re the kind of movie-goer who is prepared to pay attention through it’s lengthy runtime (2 hours and 51 minutes) then do so and you will be rewarded, otherwise you probably should wait for the DVD/Blu Ray.

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Posted on February 24, 2013, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You know where I stand on this so no need to rehash my opinion. Incidentally I enjoyed The Fountain.

  2. Good review. I feel that the six stories were chopped up and presented in parts just to disguise the fact that the individual stories were rather pedestrian. It’s a bit uneven at times, but still very entertaining to watch.

    • Yeah, I suppose. Either way, I think that any problems with the movie seem to stem from the book and not because of choices made by the directors. I wish that some of the stories had been in different times instead of 3 of them being so close (mid-20th century 20 present day). Would have been nice to have had one be a western – the whole thing of native indians would have fit the themes perfectly.

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