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Cloud Atlas

October 23, 2012
Cloud Atlas

I admit it: I love ambitious movies — big, complicated, literary juggernauts with myriad moving parts all arranged just so in perfect harmony. I like feeling like I’m doing some real work, uncovering a deeper structure that makes everything on the surface tick. Cloud Atlas is just the sort of film that, if done well, is made for me to love. And, as far as I’m concerned, Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski have succeeded. This is a grand, breathtaking spectacle of filmmaking and a tribute to the skills of all three as adapters and directors. The fatal flaw is that they may well have made their film abstruse beyond the reach or interest of much of their audience, and confounding to those seeking a proper blockbuster.

The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to movies, but this is one case where it applies almost literally. The film consists of six stories, spread across centuries of time, all involving the same cast and returning to similar themes. Chronologically, the first, fifth, and sixth were directed by the Wachowskis, while Tykwer takes the second, third, and fourth. They don’t play out chronologically, though, nor in the nested fashion of the book, but are interwoven tightly, as the natural translation from page to screen of such an ambitious project.

Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a notary in 1849, sailing from the South Pacific, where he has witnessed the signing of a contract between the Reverend and Madame Horrox (Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon) and his own father-in-law (Hugo Weaving) back home in San Francisco. He travels with, among others, a moderately creepy doctor (Tom Hanks) and a stowaway slave (David Gyasi).

Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a poor English music student in 1931 who takes a position as amanuensis to a great Belgian composer (Jim Broadbent), living in a Scottish manor house with the composer and his wife (Halle Berry) as he composes his own magnum opus. To pass the time, he writes letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and becomes fascinated by a fragment of a journal he finds in the house, written in the mid-19th century man by a man on a transpacific voyage.

Luisa Rey (Berry) is a journalist working in San Francisco for Spyglass magazine in 1975, digging into the new nuclear power plant whose manager (Grant) seems to have some shady dealings on the side. She receives help from a concerned scientist on the inside (Hanks) while avoiding the plant’s security (Keith David) and an assassin on her trail (Weaving). She got the tipoff in the first place from an aging scientist who left her with a pack of letters he once received from his lover from Cambridge.

Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a book publisher in 2012 who gets in trouble with the criminal partners of one of his authors (Hanks). He imposes on his brother and sister-in-law (Grant and Whishaw) for help, only to end up trapped in a retirement home where discipline is enforced by the Ratchet-like Nurse Noakes (Weaving). With the aid of some of his fellow inmates he must attempt a lightly comedic escape. Among his papers is a manuscript submission for Half-Lives, a detective novel about a journalist investigating a nuclear power plant.

Sonmi~451 (Doona Bae) is a fabricant who works for a creep of a boss/owner (Grant) in a café in the near-future dystopia of Neo-Seoul. She is freed by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), who operates as part of a resistance movement under the direction of general An-kor Apis (David), and who wishes to trigger her self-awareness in order to start a revolution. Among other approaches, he tries exposing her to various 20th- and 21st-century cultural artifacts, from Solzhenitsyn’s philosophy to a comedy about a man trying to escape from a retirement community where he has been mistakenly taken as a resident.

In the distant, post-apocalyptic future Meronym (Berry), a woman from an advanced culture, comes to an isolated island to find a way to communicate with colonies of humans who left the Earth before most of it became a scorched, irradiated wasteland. She enlists the aid of Zachry (Hanks), a local herdsman who normally spends his time tending his flock and defending his family from rampaging cannibals (led by Grant). Zachry and his tribe are a superstitious lot; he fears the influence of a recurring devilish vision (Weaving), but draws strength from their holy book, The Revelation of Sonmi~451.

As is certainly clear, there is a lot going on here, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of most of these stories. It’s almost surprising that the film comes in at a mere 164 minutes in the American cut, allowing only 25 minutes or so for each section. Each one manages to expand beyond its bounds, though, by spilling over into the others. The directors rhyme one scene in one story with another scene in another, sometimes in great stacks.

The cast — and thus on some level the characters — aren’t the only things that continue from one story to another. All sorts of references, places, and objects great and small cross-link the narratives. A blue-green button here; rings there. San Francisco, California; King’s College, Cambridge; the Pacific Ocean. A sliced throat; a gunshot; a gout of blood. Slavery; love; transcendence. And threaded through it all is the hauntingly beautiful and bittersweet Cloud Atlas Sextet, which shows up in pieces in the phenomenal score by Tykwer and his collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.

Visually, the film is an impressive spectacle. The Wachowskis are as comfortable in grandeur as Tykwer is in intimacy. Each section is an exemplar of a particular cinematic style of storytelling, sometimes stereotypically so. Superficially, some scenes can even seem lazy, falling back on old tropes and common clichés.

But the artistry is as much in how the cards in the deck shuffle together. We must ask, as two scenes rhyme, how it is that the function one plays in its narrative is the same as the other plays in its own. Sometimes this is made easy and explicit, and sometimes it’s much, much harder. It’s not merely a crossword puzzle, it’s one without a printed grid, where the audience isn’t even warned that there’s a puzzle to be solved.

For those ready to work, though, it’s a marvelous and fascinating puzzle indeed. In watching and studying the stories told by these shifting, nebulous images across one, unchanging background, we can start to tease out underlying patterns that reveal to us the secrets of the weather that shapes our human existence. Will this Cloud Atlas reveal its secrets to all who watch? is it even possible to achieve such a lofty goal? of course not. But as I said, I love it just for trying. It may be impossible to touch the sky, but those who aim for it fly higher than those who do not dare to dream.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2012 12:24

    I get mixed vibes from the trailer. It all looks so random. But the ambitious scope is kind of exhilarating. Can’t wait to check this out. Loved your review.

  2. October 23, 2012 12:28

    It really is sort of scattered, and you’re not wrong to feel nervous. I hope that some of what I’ve written helps break the surface and makes it easier to “read” the film without spoiling it. A lot of the structure — even some of the bigger parts of it — seemed to fly right by some of the people I talked to afterwards.

    • October 29, 2012 12:03

      So ultimately I felt I was let down. Cloud Atlas is clearly a visual spectacle with impressive makeup effects. However the stories were surprisingly simplistic, essentially less sophisticated versions of other well known stories: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, anyone? They tried to disguise this by presented them all chopped up inn pieces. The ADD style just gave me a headache. I hope the makeup departments gets an Oscar nomination. Their work was truly extraordinary.

    • October 29, 2012 12:07

      That’s a fair opinion. As for “simplicity”, as I read it part of the point is to present what amount to “genre archetypes”, of a sort, in order to highlight the parallels between the different stories that we tell ourselves over and over and over again.

  3. October 23, 2012 17:55

    How does it fail the Bechdel test? There are many named female characters, some of whom talk to one another, and usually aren’t talking about men. Yoona and Sonmi are just the first examples that come to mind. When female characters do discuss men, they are usually in collusion with one another to defeat them, not rivals competing for them. It’s not a female-driven film, but has plenty of strong female characters.

    On the whole your feelings about the film echo my own: yes, some ideas and some thematic connections are too pat or contrived, but there’s enough self-awareness and artistry to get me through the patches I find overly romantic. If you’re too cynical to love some aspect of this film, you’ve given up on your own humanity.

  4. October 23, 2012 18:18

    I admit it was closer than most, but I tend to err on the side of caution. Yoona~939, for instance, was a relatively minor character in the movie, her conversations with Sonmi~451 were mostly about Seer Rhee, and what wasn’t about him was barely a conversation. It’s a judgment call, and I understand if you feel it goes the other way.

    • November 8, 2012 01:14

      Even the official website gave this a pass:

    • November 8, 2012 07:21

      That’s a judgement call by a particular viewer. The test is always a judgement call, and there is no “official” answer. I don’t count that scene as a pass because, as I said, Yoona~939 is rather a minor character, and their conversation about their working conditions are largely about Seer Rhee.

      • March 30, 2013 16:38

        Doesn’t Berry’s character interact with a sick woman in a hut in her future version? I believe the wife? Whom had a name? (It was so much, and I saw it a while back, it’s escaping me. I have to do this as a class presentation with much younger students than myself – and they were discussing using movies like “She’s All That” I’m dying over here.)

      • March 30, 2013 17:23

        Meronym does heal Zachry’s young sister Catkin (Raevan Lee Hanan) after she steps on a poisonous fish. Is that what you’re thinking about?

      • March 31, 2013 15:39

        Yes, that’s what I was talking about. I have to use four examples and was hoping I could use this film without it being too borderline. Even though it is…unfortunately borderline. I guess, I didn’t want to shove “feminist” movies down their throats. I tend to be a strong personality already. I found this film just really, beautiful. I find anything sci-fi, addictive. I reject the “popular teen crap” initially – but usually watch it with my kids. I think my kids are only 5-8 years younger than these students. Thanks for your info. That helped. (I know I’m also using Prometheus. Working on the other two.

      • March 31, 2013 15:48

        I say by all means push “feminist” movies down their throats!

        In this case, though, I wouldn’t say that Catkin is a major character. You couldn’t even remember what relation she had to Zachry, which is no fault of yours since she’s just not that important.

        Feel free to dig through my archives to look for other passes, and I’d encourage you to also use at least one where the movie passes even though it’s not particularly feminist (or good!), just to show that the Bechdel Test is more of a consciousness-raising exercise than a hard-and-fast rule. The Host is a good example: it passes (barely, as I comment), but its gender dynamics are pretty much deplorable.

      • March 31, 2013 15:56

        I’d rather use movies that they have probably seen, or gone to see with their parents, or have at least heard of…because A. I’m not their mom, (If I was their mom, I’d snap up all their iPhones and make them go see what it’s like to live my life, or any “food insecure” person’s life for a week, and that the people on welfare aren’t worthless scum suckers that feel entitled to anything that are stealing “their” -aka- their parent’s money.) and B. I know that I tend to talk too much. I also am in the middle of moving, and only have netflix or the full length movies on youtube (which movies change swiftly – due to copyrights) – and this project could sneak up on me if I’m not careful. I did pack up all my DVD’s recently and I’m between two houses. So, like I said – gotta bet careful. I think I can get my DVD rentals if needed. So, yes – I will see what I can do on the list you have. I am VERY grateful for the help here. (and occasionally I have to go rot my brain on some silly stuff on FB just to slow it down sometimes. Just so much while taking a full load.) I did see Les Miserables. I don’t know if even that one had two women pass this test. I never considered this question before. And my immediate response – it brings about very, very depressing movies or super-empowering movies. (other than Prometheus. I’d say they played that pretty cool.)

      • March 31, 2013 15:50

        Oh and if you’re looking at Prometheus you should look also at Aliens, since that was the original, canonical example of a pass (though I might not agree on that).

      • March 31, 2013 15:59

        I had to look up that word, canonical, but that shouldn’t give one the right by means of another. That’s crap. That’s a crap rule. If the other movie had Weaver with a bunch of men – then how would it pass? I’m not sure she ever spoke to any women – and the last time I saw those movies was AGES ago. (I’m nearly 40). I loved the interaction of the two women – even though blondie got a big dose of Karma.


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