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Film Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)


Cloud Atlas (2012) is the epitome of a love it or hate it kind of movie.  It has largely divided audiences and critics between those who praise it as a masterpiece and those who criticize it as a colossal disaster of an experiment and wasting a massive budget. The truth lies somewhere in between. Indeed, it is experimental in nature given the epic scope and unique storytelling structure, but it is also an experiential film – one that should be felt more so than thought about, though there is much to think about as well (but probably best left for those willing to watch it multiple times). It is perhaps one of if not the most ambitious film of the year, at which it does not always achieve the greatness it seeks or even executes the fundamentals at all times.

Of course, one thing is certain: it is an immaculately crafted film, technically speaking, with gorgeous visuals and a sumptuous and engrossing original score but with the exception of poorly executed makeup that distracts at various times. Overall, Cloud Atlas is highly entertaining and thought-provoking, though at first glance it might be better experienced rather than dissected; viewers trying too hard to connect the dots will certainly be frustrated, whereas those who simply sit back and enjoy the genre-hopping stories for what they are ought to have a fun, fascinating cinematic experience – the subtext and message is another issue altogether, which for many can simply pass them by.

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So how does one write a synopsis for a film that contains six different yet loosely related stories that span over five centuries? It is based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name, which had been deemed “unfilmmable” or impossible to adapt to the big-screen.  Yet, Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) and the Wachowski siblings Andy and Lana (of The Matrix renown) have accomplished this monumental feat and then some – they not only translate the six stories to the big-screen but also interweave them through parallel editing. The result will irritate viewers looking for a straightforward proceeding, but in the end it is not only helpful but also essential to the film’s entertainment value. In other words, had it been told in a linear format, many viewers would be easily bored by the less interesting or dramatic stories; this way, audiences have less chance to become passive and un-amused. In fact, the tension is ratcheted up quite high at times when one story reaches a pinnacle of tension then withholds the climax only to cut to another climactic sequence of another story. Whether or not the climax and aftermath is cathartic or not varies, but this structure keeps the audience engaged, so long as they are willing to keep up mentally and invest themselves emotionally into each individual story.

This next section will briefly summarize each story in chronological order. It contains some moderate spoilers. The Wachowski siblings directed the 1849, 2144, and 106 A.F. segments, whereas Tykwer directed the 1936, 1973, and 2012 segments. 

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  • The first story is set in 1849 where young lawyer Adam Ewing is responsible for bringing back a slaving contract from a Pacific Island to his father-in-law in San Francisco. On his journey, the shady doctor Henry Goose befriends and tries to take advantage of Adam, who has befriended a stowaway slave aboard their ship back to the U.S.

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  • The second story takes place in 1936 in Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland but mainly the latter. It follows Robert Frobisher, a young, homosexual English musician who works as an amanuensis (or one who writes what another dictates) to the famous, but aged and curmudgeon composer Vyvyan Ayrs. While in his employment, Frobisher secretly works on his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet and symphony. Also of note is

    that Frobisher’s lover is Rufus Sixsmith, an aspiring scientist who appears as himself in the next storyline as well.

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  • The third story happens in 1973 San Francisco where Luisa Rey, an investigative journalist, looks into a nuclear reactor conspiracy in which she befriends an older Sixsmith, who has more information. But as with any true conspiracy, Rey quickly discovers she is in danger.

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  • The fourth story is in present day United Kingdom. It centers around Timothy Cavendish, a 65-year old writer-publisher who at first finds great wealth when his gangster client Dermott Hoggins kills a literary critic (making his published book a best-seller). However, Hoggins’ less-than-reputable associates come knocking for more than some of the share of the profits and threaten Cavendish. Consequently, he seeks help from his brother, who actually puts him into a prison of sorts to stay “safe” – a nursing home in which he is committed and must escape from.

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  • The fifth story is the first futuristic one. It takes place in 2144 “Neo Seoul,” South Korea and follows Sonmi-451, a genetically engineered fabricant (or clone) server at a fast-food restaurant. She and her counterparts are simply slave workers. From the outset, we know she is being held for execution as she gives her final interview for archival sake. Before then, she recalls her tale of self-awareness and escape from servitude thanks to Hae-Joo Chang, a member of the Resistance force looking to revolt against the totalitarian authorities.

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  • The sixth and final story is dated as “106 winters after ‘The Fall,’” or precisely 2321.  It occurs on the Hawaiian Islands on a post-apocalyptic Earth. The main character is a tribesman named Zachry; his tribe and the entire island lives a primitive life and fear “Old Georgie” – their perception of the devil, whom they at times have visions of. On top of him, a cannibalistic tribe known as the Kona threaten Zachry’s tribe. One day, he and his tribe are visited by Meronym, a member of the “Prescients,” the last of the technologically-advanced people.  She seeks help from Zachry to send a message to those who have left Earth to come back and save those stranded on it.
  • A seventh prologue/epilogue story exists with Tom Hanks – a character I shall not reveal here as it may spoil some plot points or the climax of a particular story.

Wow, if that seems like a lot to consume and digest, then you have a lot to take in when you watch the movie. It is an epic, to say the least.  Each story could fit into a particular genre, though the overall tone ties it all together.  Transcendent themes of love, loss, sin’s consequences, equality, environmentalism, etc. all weave together to tell one tale.  Trying to decipher what the main point is will likely frustrate many viewers beyond saving, but there should be some messages or emotions that each and every viewer can connect with somewhere in this elaborate tale; of course, the hardcore cinephiles and hopeless romantics will find this most engaging.

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Despite the number of stories, the cast list is relatively small – this is because many of the actors are called to portray several different characters; some of which play parts in every single story, whether or not it is the same character.  Some incarnations are better than others, but the sheer fact that each actor

plays up to as many as 6 different roles is outstanding.  Wikipedia has an excellent cast chart that shows where each actor plays in each storyline – the following section details some of those performances.

Tom Hanks is devilishly dark as Dr. Henry Goose, a hotel manager, and Dermot Hoggins.  On the other hand, he is benevolent as Isaac Sachs (another nuclear scientist) and Zachry. He has the most traditional narrative arc ranging from villainous to heroic, and he delights in each role. Halle Berry is excels as Luisa Rey, whereas her part as Meronym (like Hanks’ Zachry) is a bit silly with nearly incomprehensible dialogue.  Jim Broadbent is quite self-serving as Vyvyan Ayrs, but one cannot help but sympathize with Timothy Cavendish, who is a delightful character (or obnoxious to some).  Hugo Weaving gets to play a villain in each and every scenario: Bill Smoke (a hitman), Nurse Noakes (a sort of Nurse Ratched), and Old Georgie are his more enticing roles.  Jim Sturgess is probably the most benevolent of the bunch; his highlight roles are Adam Ewing and Hae-Joo Chang.  Doona Bae is also solid in more kind roles, most noticeable as Sonmi-451.  Ben Whishaw plays several minor characters but is best known for his vulnerable part as Robert Frobisher.  James D'Arcy is a young and old Rufus Sixsmith, nurse James, and the Archivist; he brings a gentle demeanor to his parts.  Susan Sarandon is underused as Madame Horrox, older Ursula, Yosouf Suleiman, and the Abbess.  Like Weaving, Hugh Grant is largely a villain; his more notable characters are Lloyd Hooks, Denholme Cavendish, and is almost unrecognizable as the Kona Chief.  Keith David has a few parts scattered throughout, but most notably as Napier in the Luisa Rey storyline. David Gyasi also has a notable role in the Ewing storyline as slave Autua.

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One particular criticism that has been levied by almost all viewers is the poorly done makeup. In the Neo Seoul storyline, many Caucasian actors are given “yellow-face” or Asian looks, which are quite distracting.  Some have considered this racist and why not cast others in the parts?  However others point out that, while it could have been done better, keeping it the same set of actors maintains the interweaving of transcendent themes of reincarnating good and evil based on previous lives actions and consequences.  Furthermore, some have even noted that it goes both ways – Doona Bae and Halle Berry play Caucasian characters in other stories, and some others switch genders for other roles; such reviewers note this may be an attempt to point out the equality of all men and women regardless of race or sex.  Indeed, the theme of slavery and equality runs throughout all the stories.

In the end, though, this is one fine piece of cinematic entertainment.  The ambitious thematic storytelling does not always succeed, as many will find this film simply pretentious and a waste of time and money.  However, taken as a sort of anthology of pulpy short films, it is pretty amusing, even if it does not work overall.  The acting ranges all over the place, and distracting makeup does not help in some cases, but it is still a feat to portray so many characters and still convey the necessary emotions.  Above all else, Cloud Atlas is an emotional journey that romantics may adhere to best, as it takes audiences all over the emotional map.  This is definitely aided by the absolutely beautiful and haunting score by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tom Tykwer, as well as Frank Griebe and John Toll’s cinematography, both of which immerse the audience into wondrous worlds (in fact, the soundtrack is far superior to the film).  This was a cinematic experiment and one worth seeing at some point, preferably on the big screen if it is not too late (though a matinee or discounted ticket would serve you best, especially if you are disappointed). It may not be accessible to everyone, as most pure art is not, but it still should entertain on some levels and reach you emotionally.

Cloud Atlas – 7.5/10

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQFAPeaJOf8&w=575]

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