Today’s cinema adventure: Cloud Atlas, the epic 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell’s multi-narrative novel exploring the connections between individuals and their actions across time and space, written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski in collaboration with longtime associate Tom Tykwer, and featuring an ensemble cast of stars in multiple roles. Produced in Germany with funding from an assortment of production companies and government agencies, it was one of the most expensive independent films ever made (with a budget of $100 million); the difficulty in securing the necessary finances led to stalls in development and production, with the project being declared “dead” at several points, but the enthusiasm and determination of the cast and crew- particularly the dedication of its biggest star, Tom Hanks- helped provide the impetus to drive the project to fruition. After a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival met with a ten-minute standing ovation, it was released to widely mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts, ending up in the unusual position of being placed on lists of both the ten-best and ten-worst movies of the year; nevertheless, its creators have maintained their pride and belief in the work as a labor of love and a true expression of cinematic art.
The screenplay, written in close consultation with original novelist Mitchell, follows six interwoven stories, each set in different eras, in which common elements bind seemingly unrelated characters and developments together through the course of an overall narrative. In 1849, Adam Ewing, a young lawyer on an ocean voyage to conduct a transaction for his father-in-law’s slave-trading business, keeps a journal of his experiences on the ship, detailing his battle against a mysterious disease which worsens despite the efforts of the ship’s doctor, as well as his unexpected friendship with a runaway slave who has stowed away in his cabin; in 1936, Robert Frobisher, a gifted young musician, writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith from the estate of an aging composer, where he works as an amanuensis, transcribing his employer’s musical creations as he strives to compose his own masterpiece; in 1973, Luisa Rey, a young reporter, has a chance encounter with the now-elderly Sixsmith, leading to her dangerous pursuit of a story exposing corruption and fraud in the development of a new nuclear power plant; in 2012, Timothy Cavenaugh, an aging, down-on-his-luck London publisher, has a surprise bestseller on his hands when its author becomes front page news by murdering a disapproving critic- but when the writer’s thuggish family comes after a cut of the profits, he is duped by his own resentful brother into hiding out in a rest home, where a draconian staff holds him against his will until he joins with a band of other disgruntled residents to plan a daring escape; in 2144, Sonmi-451, a genetically-engineered “fabricant” created for life as a server in a Seoul restaurant, is freed from her slavish existence by a handsome and mysterious young stranger who wishes to recruit her into a rebellion against the oppressive, consumer-driven government, and after he reveals to her the dark secrets of the regime and its treatment of her kind, she agrees to speak out in an underground broadcast which will expose the truth and spread a message of love and equality for all people; and finally, in 2321, a century after a catastrophic event in which most of Earth’s population either perished or fled to colonies in outer space, a primitive tribesman named Zachry lives with intrusive visions of a ghoulish figure he refers to as “Old Georgie,” and when his village is visited by a “prescient” (a group of culturally-and-technically advanced remnants from the old society) who seeks their aid in reaching a deserted outpost from before “the fall,” he must decide whether to offer her his assistance or to abide by the prompting of his otherworldly counselor, who advises him to mistrust and betray her. As these six different tales unfold, it becomes clear that the events of the past send ripples through time to shape the events of the future, and that each person is intertwined with every other who ever lived or will live in an ongoing destiny shaped by individual choices and actions, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.
If all that seems confusing when encapsulated into a bare-bones one-paragraph synopsis, it is no less perplexing as it plays out in leisurely detail during a nearly-three-hour running time on the screen. This is, however one of the strengths of Cloud Atlas; as the various plotlines slowly move around each other in a carefully orchestrated progression of intercut scenes, they offer a challenge that intrigues the viewer despite the seeming incoherence of the juxtaposed scenarios, rather like the experience of piecing together a puzzle without being able to see the picture it will eventually form. It is difficult to become emotionally engaged in the characters or their adventures, at least at first, simply because for a good third of the film it is virtually impossible to tell what is going on or where it is all leading; but the intellectual challenge of piecing it all together from the plethora of tantalizing clues with which it baits us is sufficiently irresistible to hold our attention until, as the parallels and common elements become apparent, we find ourselves invested in the proceedings, almost without having noticed it happening. The rhyme and reason of these initially dissevered narratives becomes clearer as the threads that bind them into one are revealed, and by the time we see the underlying premise at work- the interconnectedness of all human life and experience as revealed through the gradual passage of time- we are ready to let go of our academic need to understand precisely how it fits together and simply sit back to watch as they resolve into their respective conclusions, simultaneously converging into an emotional climax which unites them into the single story which, of course, they have been all along.
At least, this is the design of the Wachowsi/Tykwer team behind the film; however, in order for it to work according to that plan, the viewer must be willing and able to buy into the conceits upon which their movie is built. This is asking a lot of modern mainstream audiences, who generally expect their movies to be grounded in concrete, tangible realism and follow a logical, linear storyline; and though there is a built-in appeal for fantasy and sci-fi fans, Cloud Atlas mixes in elements of other genres that may only serve to put off those who are hoping for a more straightforward piece of escapist adventure. In addition, its philosophical leanings, serving not merely as underpinnings to the overall piece but as the very core of its purpose, are impossible to disregard for those whose taste runs towards more concrete matter. In the end, though the film packs plenty of action, drama, and even comedy into its panoramic tale, these things take a backseat to its larger agenda of presenting an epic meditation on the unseen forces that drive our collective journey through history; there is a decidedly literary feel here- indeed, references and homages abound to authors from Melville to Ray Bradbury, and many of the situations and settings evoke memories of their best-known works- and though the directors have not slacked in their efforts to create a cinematic experience, Cloud Atlas achieves its ends largely through a cerebral process more akin to reading a book than to the visceral response associated with film. This is an observation, not necessarily a criticism; nevertheless, audiences seeking thrills and excitement may find themselves less entertained than frustrated.
For those who relish the challenge of it, however, the scrambled-picture format of Cloud Atlas makes for an engaging exercise; deciphering the internal logic that transforms this mosaic of seeming non-sequiturs into a cohesive whole requires a close attention to detail and provides insurance against a flagging of interest before things become clear enough to capture our sympathies as well as our intellectual curiosity. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have done a deft job of building their game of connect-the-dots, providing no shortage of clues- presented with varying degrees of subtlety- that keep us assured that something is going on here, even if we can’t tell what it is. This, of course, binds us with the characters, most of whom also become gradually aware of these as-of-yet unexplained points of intersection, and by the time we have begun to see the layered pattern of connectivity within these conjoined tales, we are able to surrender to the momentum and let the movie carry us towards the emotional nexus of its finale. Indeed, it is the structural mystery itself that gives the film its appeal; taken on their own, the various episodes would be far too weak to build an entire movie around- with the possible exception of the dystopian saga of Sonmi-451. Tied together by the undercurrents of causality that are the filmmakers’ true focus, however, each segment assumes a higher level of integrity than is bestowed by its individual premise or plot developments, and Cloud Atlas ultimately becomes a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Besides the ambitious structural conceit, there are other aspects of the movie that may prove problematic for some viewers. Part of the thematic core is reinforced by the choice of using the same company of actors in all the stories, playing different roles; the cast was told by their directors to think of themselves as playing a “genetic strain” rather than individual characters, and the result is a suggestion of spiritual continuity and progression throughout a series of lives- though the idea of reincarnation is not directly referenced in any other way, nor is the story dependent on a belief in that concept. This multiplicity of casting, of course, gives the film’s stars a rare opportunity to show the range of their talents and yields the fun of seeing them in a wide variety of personas throughout- some of them across lines of age, gender, and ethnicity. This latter element has been the source of some controversy, with objections being raised to the use, specifically, of white actors in “yellowface” to portray Asian characters. This decision was made purely to maintain a crucial thematic concept, and indeed, Asian and black actors are also cast in white roles for the same reason; nevertheless, audiences sensitive to these kind of racial issues may find this uncomfortable.
Questions of perceived racism aside, this somewhat theatrical tactic, achieved with an extensive use of make-up and prosthetic effects in order to create vastly differing appearances for each of the characters’ various incarnations, may prove somewhat distracting- even jarring- to audiences not quite able to accept seeing these familiar faces passed off as anything other than their recognizable selves. Some of the more obviously exaggerated permutations- Hanks as a Cockney gangster, for instance, or Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse- are deployed for intentional comedic effect, but the inescapable cartoonishness of the disguises, in other cases, may elicit inappropriate chuckling. To be sure, the use of actors in multiple roles is nothing new; it is part of a grand cinematic tradition most famously represented by the likes of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. Again, though, contemporary audiences are unused to seeing it, and the sight of Hanks with enormous prosthetic buck teeth or Susan Sarandon as a heavily-tattooed tribal crone might demand too great a test of the willing suspension of disbelief for a good number of viewers.
The biggest obstacle that Cloud Atlas faces, though, in winning the hearts and minds of its audience, comes not from its unorthodox structural form or its casting, but from the very essence of its premise. In positing a continuous thread of influence that runs through the course of human history, the film presents a thought-provoking- and relatively uncontroversial- idea that most reasonable viewers will have no problem accepting; but Tykwer and the Wachovskis, along with original author Mitchell, layer in the additional suggestion of an underlying consciousness of this phenomenon that manifests itself in an awareness within the characters themselves. While it is not a stretch to portray individuals who feel a certain sense of destiny, Cloud Atlas goes further than this, making it clear that these moments of a priori recognition are the result of a force- whether supernatural, spiritual, or scientific- which exists beyond conscious perception. To fully accept Cloud Atlas, the viewer must be open to embracing a certain “New Age” sensibility (for want of a better term) that encompasses notions of collective consciousness, the continuity of souls, and the workings of karma; though there is no overt discussion of these things by name- characters express their own beliefs and speculations in more-or-less generic, non-denominational terms- they are directly implied and, indeed, required as a condition of the film’s entire premise. It is this factor that may most sharply determine whether a viewer can enjoy Cloud Atlas or not, and it’s a point that is not dependent on any affect the film may adopt. There is no persuasion to be accomplished here; you either believe in this stuff or you don’t, and if you don’t, the payoff at the end of this ambitious epic will likely leave you cold.
That said, even for skeptical or cynical cinema enthusiasts, there is much to admire in Cloud Atlas. The directors- who split the segments between themselves, with Tykwer handling the 1936, 1973, and 2012 stories and the Wachovski siblings helming those set in 1849, 2144, and 2321- have delivered a polished and cohesive whole while not only working separately but within styles appropriate for the different tones and settings of each of the six episodes; from period drama to seventies action to contemporary comic caper to futuristic action-adventure, they hit the right chords in their approach. They deftly cut between the various threads in such a way as to emphasize the crucial parallels and reinforce their central conceit, as well as using the cross-cutting as a technique to build suspense and quicken the pace. Most importantly, perhaps, they infuse their movie with the kind of epic visuals that linger in the memory- not just in the sci-fi segments, where dazzling design and effects create a distinctive and original vision of the future while evoking classics like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the less fantastical sequences as well. Artful composition and imaginative camerawork are expertly employed throughout, allowing, after all, for that direct, visceral effect of a purely cinematic experience, and thereby creating a cumulative emotional response while the necessary intellectual constructs develop through the dialogue. It is this mastery of filmmaking technique that gives Cloud Atlas its most universal appeal; even those with the most vehement rejection of its concept and message can appreciate the artistry that has been employed by its makers in their passion to bring it to the screen.
That same passion manifests itself in the work of the cast, an oddly-mixed yet complementary ensemble that includes no less than four Oscar-winners and an assortment of acclaimed up-and-comers. The aforementioned Hanks heads the group, playing a “genetic strain” that makes perhaps the most profound journey- from avaricious killer to selfless hero- during the course of his six incarnations; of these roles, the most “Hanks-like” is that of a sympathetic nuclear physicist in the 1973 sequence, in which he gives voice to perhaps the most eloquent expression of the film’s central theme, but it is in his against-type turn as a visionary post-apocalyptic tribesman that he truly shines- though for some viewers, accepting the usually warm and civilized everyman actor in this gruff and primitive persona may be too much of a stretch. Halle Berry is also prominently placed as Hanks’ feminine counterpart, of sorts, serving as muse and catalyst for the development of others as she continually works towards her own fulfillment; her best work comes in her showcase role as journalist Luisa Rey- though she has an undeniably intriguing presence as the white, Jewish-refugee wife of the aged composer in the 1936 story. Jim Broadbent is, as always, spot-on in his multiple appearances, the quintessential character actor clearly relishing the opportunity to show off his range; though his star spot comes in arguably the weakest of the scenarios- the cutely comedic adventure of the rascally publisher and his escape from the old folks’ home- his honest and likable performance is more than enough to make it engaging and endow it with the weight necessary to make it suitable as a companion to the other, more serious tales. Hugo Weaving is perhaps a bit wasted in his series of roles, for the most part representing the darkest side of humanity throughout the film, and therefore denied the opportunity to show the kind of variety displayed by his co-stars; but he is, nevertheless, a welcome participant, particularly in his delightfully droll drag appearance as the elder-abusing head nurse who terrorizes Broadbent. Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy are moving and believable as the doomed young musician and his future-nuclear-physicist lover, making their tragic love story as inspirational, resonant, and universal as it deserves to be. The former is particularly heartbreaking, playing against sentimentality to embody the roguish dilettante and making this pivotal character all the more sympathetic for it; and the latter- the only cast member to play the same character in two separate segments- also stands out in his other featured role as the interrogator struggling to maintain his neutrality as he questions captured rebel Sonmi-451. Jim Sturgess, who plays a central role in both the 1849 shipboard drama and the tale of Sonmi, is appealingly sensitive- and handsome- as each; and Hugh Grant is virtually unrecognizable in most of his appearances here, but highly effective in all of them, reminding us that this former matinee-idol- a last-minute addition to the cast- has always been a formidable actor, as well. With less screen time than some of the others, the aforementioned Sarandon lends her venerable respectability to a handful of supporting parts, mostly representing the dignity and wisdom of the feminine aspect, and David Gyasi scores with the earnest nobility he brings to Autua, the runaway slave. The performance that provides the heart and soul of Cloud Atlas, though, comes from Doona Bae as reluctant rebel Sonmi-451; with quiet, unassuming intelligence and a sense of wonder that mixes with a deep sadness in her core, she gives us a believable and touching transcendence from slave to saint, filling the center of the film’s most ambitious segment and making it into the most touching and memorable of the lot.
Aside from the direction and the performances, there are numerous other impressive contributions to Cloud Atlas; the costume and makeup design are outstanding, the cinematography luminous, the scenic elements- which include both magnificent natural locations and sumptuously realized interiors- rich and detailed, and the special effects stunning. If there were a single element to be singled out, however, it would unquestionably be the remarkable score. Composed by co-director Tykwer himself in collaboration with Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (a long-standing team responsible for the music in most of Tykwer’s previous films, as well), it is a genuine masterpiece of movie music. Emerging within the narrative itself as the “Cloud Atlas Suite” written by young Frobisher, it weaves the same dominant themes and motifs throughout the six stories in styles which complement the mood and setting of each; alternately haunting, sad, stirring, triumphant, eloquent, and simple, it registers both subliminally and overtly as the true backbone of the film’s emotional and conceptual raison d’être, and though it could easily have been pushed just a few notches up to become maudlin, manipulative, and bathetic, instead it strikes just the right balance of flourish and restraint every step of the way. A textbook example of the proper use of scoring in the cinema, it is strong enough that it could likely tell the story without need for dialogue, and deserves to stand among the best works of other film-scoring giants from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to John Williams.
Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is one of those movies that defy criticism. Technically superb as it may be, and whole-heartedly committed and enthusiastic as all its participants were in its making, it inevitably elicits a polarized response. Cinema, like all art forms, is at its essence a conceptualized expression- whether of an idea, an emotion, or some mixture of both; the reaction of the observer, when all is said and done, is dependent upon how that observer feels about what has been expressed. There are those who will simply not respond sympathetically to the message of Cloud Atlas, and there are others who will find it deeply profound and inspirational. Much like the perennial Christmas classic, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, its a matter of personal taste; one could probably split the world neatly into two types of people: those who like it and those who don’t. Of course, there will always be an overlapping group of those who can’t quite make up their mind, for whatever reason; for my own part, that’s where I found myself fitting in, at least initially. As days went by, however, I kept thinking about this unusual, challenging film, and remembering moments that I had almost overlooked in the lengthy sweep of it; the more I thought, the more I admired it, and I am now eager for a second viewing, and perhaps more, in order to catch hold of the myriad threads of detail with which its tapestry is woven. I suspect that multiple viewings are probably necessary to gain a full appreciation for Cloud Atlas, and I must say that I am now more than willing to test that theory. As much as I have come to appreciate it, however, I have my doubts that this Wachowsi/Tykwer opus will ever approach the top of my list of favorites. Though I confess my personal beliefs are very much in sync with the ones presented here, there is something about seeing them presented as a concrete truth that somehow diminishes them; perhaps it is because, by nature of the very act of creating a story to encapsulate them, a degree of necessary artifice exists which evokes a suggestion of insincerity. To its credit, Cloud Atlas skillfully avoids being precious, preachy, or cloying, despite many moments which could easily go this way, and it is clear from beginning to end that its makers are adamant in the beliefs their film espouses; indeed, it’s hard to imagine a movie that feels more genuine in its dedication to a purpose. Even so, there are many viewers- myself included- who simply prefer to be allowed to draw their own conclusions about such deeply personal matters, and while Cloud Atlas never makes a defining pronouncement about the nature of existence itself nor declares any principle as an ultimate truth, it certainly leaves no doubt which way you should look for these things. Perhaps it’s less a movie than a devotional meditation, in the end; though it can be a beautiful experience for seekers and believers, everybody else is going to have a hard time seeing the point.