A film review by Craig J. Koban October 31, 2012
2012, R, 172 mins.
2012, R, 172 mins.
Featuring the following actors in multiple roles:
Written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, based on the book by David Mitchell
identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
by Walt Whitman
Watching CLOUD ATLAS is like looking at one of those beguiling, yet ethereally beautiful pixelated paintings where a discernable image only becomes visible the more you stare at it and focus your concentration.
One’s attention must be wholly engaged in this 172-minute cinematic ballad to what many have perceived to be an unfilmable novel by David Mitchell of the same name; many viewers will no doubt be completely befuddled by the film, while some will hastily admonish it without hesitation. Yet, for patient and literate filmgoers that allow the film’s labyrinthine narrative to slowly creep up on them and form a meaningful whole, CLOUD ATLAS will stir the imagination and touch the soul. So rarely do I ever say that you will never see a film quite like this in a review...but it abundantly fits here..
ATLAS is a work of towering ambition, fearless scope, audacious
confidence, and metaphysical
compulsion, one that certainly could not have been helmed by any single
director, so it was quarterbacked by three: Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy
Wachowski (THE MATRIX trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN), and it’s a
collaboration that’s endlessly intrepid, and innovative.
They have teamed together to engage in the near impossible of adapting
Mitchell’s own 2004 award winning novel, which requires them to traverse
through a wickedly dense narrative structure that rickshaws back and forth
– in and out of the past, present, and future (between the years 1849
and 2346) – that, in turn, tells a sextet of stories that involves all
of the respective characters sharing cosmic, physical, and spiritual
commonalities. The fact that
they manage to create a level of coherent harmony among all of these
threads is frankly amazing; it takes some kind of superlative talent and
daring to make Mitchell’s work feel legible on screen, and the
Wachowskis and Tykwer have done just that.
Mitchell’s novel was decidedly more linear minded, the directors here
have opted for a more cerebrally challenging method of scrambling and then
intertwining all of his various narrative threads into one complete
package. CLOUD ATLAS does not
make initial sense very early on, and it will no doubt vex even smart
viewers into frustration. Yet,
the Wachowskis and Tykwer take their time to connect all of the film’s
enthralling dots and find a way to creative a connective tissue between
all of the lives presented. The
six stories take place during six different time periods – the late 19th
century, the 1930’s, 1973, 2012, 2144, and the very distant
post-apocalyptic future – that feature the film’s cast portraying
multiple characters during all of them, oftentimes swapping ethnicities
and even gender through the marvels of makeup and (I think)
state-of-the-art computer generated tinkering.
The point here is that all of the characters (well, most of them)
are reincarnations of the very same soul, symbolizing the universality of the
human experience and condition.
first story thread takes place on an 19th Century naval vessel and
involves the rather unlikely friendship between an American notary (Jim Sturgess)
and a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) that mutually help each other survive
the hellish trek across the Pacific.
The second thread – arguably the most emotionally touching
– involves the 1930’s love affair between a young penniless homosexual
musician (Ben Winshaw) and his secret companion (James D’Arcy) and later
shows how the former develops a tumultuous work relationship with an old
composer (Jim Broadbent). The
third story arc takes place in the gritty political paranoia of the
1970’s and sees a brave reporter (Halle Berry) uncovering a cruel
plot by a greedy nuclear power businessman (Hugh Grant, the film’s great
casting coup) who seems to want to purposely melt down a reactor for
fourth of the sixth segments – the film’s most endearingly comical
– involves a British publisher (Broadbent) that is tricked into
confining himself in a nursing home that is ruled over by a wicked Nurse
Ratchet-type (Hugo Weaving…yup…playing a woman!). The second last segment – the most visually rich and
astounding – takes place in 22nd Century Seoul that reveals how one
“frabricant” (a genetically engineered being, created to serve
consumers, played exquisitely by Doona Bae) finds a savior in a Korean
rebel leader (Sturgess) to free her and allow her to become a symbol of
the resistance. The final – and perhaps the most dramatically
impenetrable – story arc takes place well beyond the 22nd Century where
primitive beings speaking in their own odd language and form ties with a
technologically advanced civilization from the stars.
One tribesman (Hanks) teams up with a galaxy-trekking woman (Berry) to help each
other in ways that alters the course of their future existence.
lengthy description of CLOUD ATLAS' story does not do it justice or even
remotely skim its complicated surface.
Again, one’s full attention needs to be levied at the screen
throughout the film’s near-three-hour runtime (which seems almost too
brisk and nimble considering how long it is) to fully appreciate the board
mosaic of stories and multiple themes that permeate it.
CLOUD ATLAS almost reprimands modern filmgoer complacency for neat,
tidy, and easily digestible plotting that goes from A to B and finally to
C; it’s so unlike contemporary films for how our emotional buy-in
gestates via our dissection of all of the story threads and ability to
piece them all together. Only
about a third of the way through does the film’s thematic puzzle pieces
begin fit together – the number six is a constant motif (six stories, the
Cloud Atlas musical sextet within the story; a character is named Sixsmith;
etc.) and the notion of a thirst for freedom and knowledge is also a
rallying cry for all of the characters throughout its centuries-spanning
plot. Then there is an odd
birthmark that seems to spring up on various characters through time as
Wachowskis (no strangers to grand and immersive visual effects) and Tykwer create a rich and
varied visual tapestry throughout the film (the former filmed the 19th
Century tale and the two futuristic ones and the latter did the 1930's,
1970’s and present day stories). It’s
seemingly impossible at times to think that three different people
directed this modest budgeted epic ($100 million, largely from independent
financiers) because they all find a harmonious visual style that gels
together so fluently. I liked
the attention to period detail during the 70’s sequence and stared with
awe at the sights of Neo-Seoul of the 22nd Century, a sprawling
megatropolis growing over the remains of the flooded out old Seoul that
looks like a combination of BLADE
RUNNER’s L.A. and the futuristic city vistas from the STAR
WARS prequels. How
CLOUD ATLAS cost only $100 million when compared to so many lesser
looking/more expensive films is staggering to contemplate.
ensemble cast displays the same amount of rich variety and
boldness as the film's visual dynamism and storytelling, allowing the great
actors to embody a
startling assortment of characters (some major, some fleeting) while throwing
vanity and caution to the wind. The
manner that Hanks, Sturgess, Berry, Weaving, et al are all allowed a
remarkable amount of free reign to cross over racial lines has been criticized for being...racist,
which is an absurd criticism, seeing as some of the ethnic actors (Berry
and Donna Bae, for example) cross their own races to portray white women
respectively; the point here is to ground the film’s touchstone theme of
souls reincarnate and how human lives touch others throughout the vastness
of time. It also allows some
actors to euphorically move completely out of their comfort zones.
When was the last time you saw Hugh Grant play a post-apocalyptic
cannibalistic savage or Hanks playing an f-bomb yelling Irish hooligan
with a penchant for nonchalant murder? How about Hugo Weaving as a futuristic Korean and a woman?
Berry as an elderly Asian man and white Jewish woman? The
makeup here is kind of thankless: at times, you’re not even sure who’s
playing whom, which is the intention, I think.
of the individual story threads work better than others.
I found the distant future tribal banter between Hanks and Berry to
be so befuddling at times that it makes THE
DARK KNIGHT RISES' Bane sound like an elocution
instructor, but the oddness of this futuristic slang gives the film
another layer of compelling mysteriousness (that, and I’m sure that our
modern lingo come off as alien talk to people from 300 years
ago). Two particular threads that moved
me the most, the first involving Ben Winshaw’s musician trying to
balance his own artistic aims with those of his employer while trying to
have a gay relationship at a time when it was social suicide.
The other one - a whole story arc taking place in futuristic Seoul that shows Donna
Bae’s engineered creation trying to discover her own identity and
purpose for existing - is, improbably enough, the episode with the most
touching humanity entrenched in it.
have described CLOUD ATLAS as the ultimate three-hour mental endurance
test and/or mind-screw job. Unsuspecting
cinema patrons entering into this film will leave feeling annoyed,
confused, and unnecessary challenged.
But, great art challenges cherished status quos and dares to be
daringly original and entirely unique filmgoing experiences that polarize
(films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY were despised by many when originally
released and are now heralded as masterpieces).
CLOUD ATLAS has flaws, to be sure, but its unlimited thirst to be
novel, pioneering, thought provoking and visionary trumps those
nitpicky blemishes. Here’s
a sci-fi drama of grand ideas, even grander visuals, and narrative and
thematic density that feels like forgotten foreign territory these days.
It’s a film that will undoubtedly stir people to seek it out and
see it again; as Lana Wachowski stated in a recent interview, “We wanted
to make the kind of film that makes us want to make films, one that had an
unabashed scale and scope, and a philosophical investigation of what it
means to be human.”
Name another film 2012 that has achieved just that?