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Cloud Atlas (film review)

Rating:
Star5
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Star
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In Nature there are neither Rewards or Punishments; there are Consequences. (R.G. Ingersoll)

scenes from Cloud Atlas
scenes from Cloud Atlas
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poster for Cloud Atlas
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Once again, thanks to the auspices of Young Son (with his trusty sidekick The Divine Miss C), I have had a task placed before me: that of delivering pithy commentary and whatnot on the Wachowskis/Tom Tykwer 2012 adaptation of David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas".

And I don't mind in the least these occasional requests. When one has an Audience one is often obliged to give it what it wants (he says in his best Dustin Hoffman/perhaps David Wayne attempt at a William F. Buckley Jr. voice). In any case I suspect Young Son has patiently been waiting for some time for my opinions on "Cloud Atlas".

At first I thought I'd seen this film before. Or something close to it anyway. Back in 1994, Bill Forsyth brought us "Being Human": a problem-plagued production which featured Robin Williams playing a character throughout five different periods of history.

But "Cloud Atlas" very quickly proved to be something different, more ambitious and, ultimately, far better executed. Something immediately noticeable was the fact that the film required the viewer to think. This is always a difficult proposition to throw at an American film audience. Most Americans don't go to the movies to think . . . they go to see titties (not that titties don't make you think, but we're talking about the difference between the visceral and the cognitive). Even if I hadn't known "Cloud Atlas" was made in Germany I would've guessed from the overall tone and execution that it wasn't made here. The Good Lord alone only knows what a totally American director would've done with Mitchell's novel. As it stands: "Cloud Atlas" joins that rarefied elite of movies (e.g. Darren Aronofsky's "Pi", Shane Carruth's "Primer", Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad") where the audience is required to put its mind in gear and work for a living. Certainly not an easy thing to ask, but if one makes the effort the result can sometimes be entertaining.

I'm warning you now that I'll be expounding more on the underlying philosophy of the film later on (as most of you go "uh oh"). Right now, however, I'll focus on the nuts and bolts (repeat: "uh oh").

I saw three names in the director's slot for "Cloud Atlas" and immediately developed a bad feeling in my gut. Especially when I saw that the Wachowskis were involved. Let us be honest with ourselves, pumpkins, and say that Andy and Lana's stock hasn't enjoyed the best of recent times. The "Matrix" trilogy ended up tripping on itself, "V for Vendetta" could've been better, and the less said about "Speed Racer" the better (although I will confess that getting Susan Sarandon to play Mom Racer was a coup worthy of Napoleon at his apex). Add to that the current contretemps concerning "Jupiter Ascending" and one can be forgiven for thinking that all sharp objects should be kept out of the Wachowskis' reach.

With all that, though, I will say that, after seeing "Cloud Atlas", I am willing to cut the Wachowskis a king-hell smoking big hunk of Slack. In concert with Tykwer ("Run Lola Run", "The International", "Three", etc.) the result has been a movie to conjure with. If it takes three people to make a film like "Cloud Atlas" then, please Heaven, let the three be Tykwer and the Wachowskis.

I won't go so far to call "Cloud Atlas" a perfect film. Even given the necessity to carefully craft the interlocking stories which make up the film I'll perhaps step on some toes and suggest that a little judicious editing here and there might've been welcome. But it's sort of like receiving a Michaelangelo for display and realizing you can't fit it in the space you assigned. What the hell do you chop off?

And it cannot be denied that the 172 minutes running time is necessary to handle the story. Or stories, I should say. "Cloud Atlas" deals with events and characters, stretching from the mid-1800s to a time some 106 years after a global apocalypse has devastated most of the human race. In 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is traveling through the Pacific where he befriends an island native (David Gyasi) who has stowed away on his ship. In England in 1936, composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is assisting an aging composer (Jim Broadbent) while, at the same time, working on a creation of his own entitled "The Cloud Atlas Sextet". In 1973 an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) is attempting to uncover a possible conspiracy involving a nuclear reactor. In the London of 2012 an elderly publisher (Broadbent again) runs afoul of a contractural situation involving an author and, after asking his brother for help, winds up committed to a nursing home. Moving to 22nd Century Korea we find Somni-451 (Doona Bae): a genetically engineered worker who gradually comes to learn of the horrors of her existence and becomes involved in a rebellion. Finally, in the distant future, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a primitive society: the result of humanity's collapse due to some unknown catastrophe. He agrees to assist Meronym (Berry again) in reaching an ancient communication station so that Meronym may contact an offworld colony for help.

At first blush the stories might seem wholly disconnected. But, as Tykwer's adaptation of Mitchell's book demonstrated (assisted by the Wachowskis in the screenplay), all the stories and characters interlock. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in large ones. Ewing's journal of his adventures is read by Frobisher, whose best friend (played by James D'Arcy) grows into the nuclear physicist who tips off Luisa Rey (Barry) about the conspiracy. The mansion which was owned by Jim Broadbent's character in 1936 becomes the nursing home where Broadbent's publisher character is imprisoned. His ordeal is turned into a feature film which is viewed by Somni-451, inspiring her to seek out a wider world view, and it is Somni-451 who becomes the figurehead of a religion in the future (her final comments forming the sacred text).

Whew!

Piecing all of this together couldn't have been no small task, and it's another reason I've come to hold "Cloud Atlas" in a particular esteem. I was not present at the writing of the screenplay, but I can easily imagine the walls of a room covered with little note cards connected in a web of marker lines and bits of colored twine. Doubtless I'm mistaken, but that's the impression I'm left with.

As you might have noticed from the above, the various roles in the film are played by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving (including, I should add, one of the more bizarre roles of his career, and that's saying an awful lot), Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, James D'Arcy and several others. And not all playing necessarily the same sort of character throughout the film. Hanks, for example, starts out as a criminally inclined sea captain, morphs into several minor characters in the other stories before taking the lead again at the end as Zachry. In terms of acting, "Cloud Atlas" provides ample opportunity for a group of seasoned professionals to juggle several different roles. I must particularly single out Halle Berry. Here she delivers some of the best performances I've seen from her (but, admittedly, that probably says more about the sort of movies I see, rather than Berry's talent). Between her various transformations into this or that character, and Hugo Weaving's virtuosity, "Cloud Atlas" was an exercise in effort.

(It should be noted here that, whereas the film gathered in numerous international awards, as well as honors in several film festivals such as Washington D.C. and Houston, it only received an Academy Awards pre-nomination for Best Visual Effects, but ultimately failed to place. By their fruits ye shall know them . . .)

What surprised me is that "Cloud Atlas" only required two supervisory cinematographers: Frank Griebe (one of Tykwer's regulars) and John Toll ("Norma Rae", "Braveheart", etc.). Considering the complexity of the story I would've presumed a separate cinematographer for each segment. Then again, the segments don't play out sequentially but, rather, weave in and out. Doubtless this called out for some sense of continuity in the camerawork; requiring the work of two such as Griebe and Toll to keep firm hands on the rail. Each segment works to produce its own identity: from the "Master and Commander" feel of the 1849 sections to the "Blade Runner/Tron" look of 2144 and on to the overgrown desolation of the further future. The story shifts from time to time with little or no warning, but the result is never jarring. Rather, the shifts keeps the overall film from becoming static at any one point.

According to Mitchell, the characters in his novel are meant to be the same souls occupying different bodies through time. The movie, however, extends the theme, and several of the characters give voice to a central philosophy. Basically: even the smallest event (the writing of a journal, for instance) can have unexpected consequences in the future. What's more: we are literally the product of past events, just as we will be the cause of unknown results years or even centuries from now. The condition we call "Life" is only a brief tangible occupancy of the confined world, whereas Immortality is actually a tapestry consisting of all our places within the overall chain of events from the dim past to the unforeseen future. We are told to think beyond the confines of our narrow span of heartbeats, and that our true existence is measured in a vast interconnected system of people and events.

It's thoughts such as the above which were in my head at the conclusion of "Cloud Atlas". The film gave me pause to consider that I am possibly one result of some uncharted occurrence in the past, and also that what I accomplish here will somehow reflect on what happens far from today. Any movie which manages to plant such notions in my tired old konk is listed as worthwhile in my book, and it is that quality, above all, which makes me list "Cloud Atlas" as an underrated gem.