STARRING: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim
Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant
2012, 172 Minutes, Directed by:
Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Cloud Atlas is the year’s most ambitious film, one that will divide
critics as well as audiences. You will either be enthralled or bored beyond
tears. Given its nearly three hour running time, you’d best be prepared.
It’s essentially six stories,
directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, which are intertwined in a
number of ways. Three are set in the past, one in the present and two in the
future. That’s two more than D.W. Griffith did in 1916 with his epic
Intolerance, lacking any future tales. The point of the stories, based on
the novel by David Mitchell, is to present two seemingly contradictory themes.
First there is the notion that
we’re all connected and no one is alone. We are affected by what’s happened in
the past and we influence what will happen in the future, often in ways we can’t
even imagine. One way this is done by having its lead actors play different
roles in the different stories, often in unexpected ways. Halle Berry and Doona
Bae, turn up in the roles of white women, as does Hugo Weaving. Tom Hanks is a
writer of indeterminate ethnicity in one story and Hugh Grant is a
post-apocalyptic character named “Cannibal” in another. You’ll want to watch the
closing credits to see how the actors were used. Even if you were paying close
attention you’ll be surprised.
The stories vary in style and
tone. The 1849 story is a historical sea story in which Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess),
a young man travelling across the Pacific on business, is being slowly poisoned
by the seemingly benevolent Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks). In a 1936 story that could be
a Merchant/Ivory film, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a gay man and aspiring
composer, becomes a secretary to the elderly musician Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim
Broadbent). The 1973 story plays like Three Days of the Condor as an
enterprising reporter (Halle Berry) is trying to get a secret report about a
nuclear power plant operated by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) while a hired thug
(Hugo Weaving) is killing anyone who tries to help.
"A movie that will reward repeated viewings . . ."
The present day story is a
British black comedy in which a publisher (Broadbent) finds himself, through a
series of mishaps, to be a prisoner in a mental hospital, becoming involved in a
breakout. The story shifts to Korea in 2144 where a cloned servant (Doona Bae)
is freed and learns the truth about the role of her kind, bringing to mind both
The Matrix and Logan’s Run.
Finally there’s a post-apocalyptic story set in 2321 where a representative of
the surviving civilization (Berry) needs the help of one of the primitives
(Hanks) on a remote island to send a message to space in order to save humanity.
The 1849, 2144 and 2321 stories
were directed by the Wachowskis (whose credits include the
Matrix films and Speed
Racer) while the 1936, 1973, and 2012 stories were done by Tykwer (Run
Lola Run). That they
combine and edit together so smoothly is a credit to the filmmakers. There are
numerous transitions where something in one story seamlessly segues into another
or is otherwise echoed.
Some of these stories end
triumphantly, some end tragically. This leads to the movies second theme, which
is that however much we are products of the past – and possibly past lives – we
are also individuals capable of change and making a difference. Characters in
each of the stories go against the prevailing trends to do what they think is
the right thing to do, sometimes suffering the consequences for doing so. As we
bounce from story to story we see people acting out of bravery, love, loyalty
and high ideals, just as we see people acting out of greed, egotism,
authoritarianism, and sheer malice.
Cloud Atlas is a
challenging movie that can make you think or simply leave you sitting back
engaged with six stories playing out in different ways. It is much more
interesting if you pay attention to the links between stories noting, for
example, that the young boy in Halle Berry’s apartment in the 1970’s story has
written the manuscript that Jim Broadbent is reading in 2012, or that the
Broadbent character is played by Tom Hanks in the movie version watched in 2144
by Doona Bae. One suspects that this is a movie that will reward repeated
viewings, and that there are connections and layers of meaning waiting to be
Daniel M. Kimmel is a
veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first
novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s
Guide will be released in January. He teaches film at Suffolk University and
lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.