The first twenty minutes of the Andy and Lana Wachowski – Tom Tykwer epic Cloud Atlas are kind of like driving down a dark backroad at night. To enjoy it, you have to stop worrying about the curves ahead, focus on what’s in front of you and just go with it. Soon enough, six well-defined stories in six different time periods will come into view, dotted with odd connections that create cross-overs between narratives.
Chronologically, the first of these tales takes place in the Pacific Islands in the 1800s as Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) sails for home, accompanied by an all-too-accomodating doctor (Tom Hanks) and a stowaway slave (David Gyasi). Another takes place in 1936 as Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), separated from his lover Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), becomes the apprentice of famous musical composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent).
The next story finds journalist Louisa Rey (Halle Berry) in 1973 San Francisco, on the trail of a story so hot that corporate powers will kill to keep it quiet. In a 2012 narrative, a London publisher named Cavendish (Broadbent) escapes from a client’s thugs only to find himself a prisoner in a nursing home. Next is the futuristic 2144 chronicle, in which a rogue “fabricant” named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) learns the secrets surrounding her servile existence in the consumerist world of Neo Seoul. She’ll occupy a mythic position in another adventure taking place much later in the future, in the post-apocalyptic, agrarian community of Big Isle, in a date given as “106 Winters After the Fall.”
The film weaves in and out among these stories from moment to moment, and the fact that it’s not a confusing jumble owes itself to quite an achievement of directing and editing. In fact, each of these six worlds and their characters become more and more distinct as we move through the film.
As you’ve probably heard, many of the same actors play different characters in the separate stories, often rendered nearly urecognizable by make-up and costuming, so that the film becomes a sort of Where’s Waldo game of finding each actor in each story. Some actors play roles across racial barriers and some across gender ones, but it’s really Tom Hanks who is the most fun to watch, perhaps because no matter how much make-up you put on Tom Hanks, he is still immediately recognizable as Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks with messed-up teeth, Tom Hanks with a bad eye, Tom Hanks in ‘70s hair, Tom Hanks with gold chains and a big nose, Tom Hanks in ’80s drag… (no wait, that was something else).
The highlights of the film are the two futuristic stories, especially the vibrant techno-wonder of Neo Seoul. This 2144 story offers a visually spectacular marvel, complete with urban chase scenes and flying vehicles that look like mini Cylon raiders. Though the clone-versus-consumerism plot is hardly original, it sure is pretty (see Moon for a version that is less Blade Runner-inspired). Doona Bae’s Sonmi is especially interesting here as the innocent soul waking into a dark world. Hers is possibly the most moving performance of the film.
Also engaging is the world “After the Fall,” a futuristic speculation in some ways reminiscent of that of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Long after our technology has outstripped our good sense, we find ourselves in a primitive state, but one that is unlike any of the past because it bears the markings of our past technological dominance and its ravages. Some may find it difficult to follow Big Isle’s English-based dialect, in which “truth” is “true-true” and having a visitor is “spesh guest hostin.’” (Think Firefly on steroids.) Still, it’s an invitation to think about how languages change over time and to smile when you pick up a phrase.
Overall, film geeks are going to love the technical aspects of this film – the make-up, the CGI, the experimental structure, etc. Those who loved David Mitchell’s novel will enjoy seeing its stories come to life onscreen.
However, diehard fans of the book might do well to steel themselves for the possibility that the film may not appeal to the widest of audiences. Cloud Atlas is nearly three hours long, and in several places, it feels it. (Less than two hours in, the people sitting next to this writer muttered, “This is never going to be over!” and got up and left.) Part of the reason is that, as they are rendered in the film, four of the six stories just aren’t as interesting as we would like them to be. The 1849 story putters along until it lapses into predictability, and the 1930s musical partnership between Frobisher and Ayrs may be more geared toward sleepy indie theaters. The 1973 story about Louisa Rey’s investigation of a corporate cover-up is okay but plays more like an episode of a television crime show or a remake of The China Syndrome.
Cavendish being locked in a modern-day London nursing home is cute, but if you want a story about old people dealing with unexpected retirement housing issues, that story has been rendered better in another film this year. Novels have more time to flesh out their stories and connect us to their characters. In this film, though, we move through them so quickly that we don’t have time to become invested in many of the characters, except perhaps those of Hanks, because his roles create a recognizable character arc that transforms him throughout time.
Another sign of a problem is that especially toward its end, the film is saddled with a succession of didactic voiceovers, as various characters explain to us “the lesson” of the interlocking narratives we have just witnessed. We are all connected. Karma’s a bitch. Slavery is bad. It sucks to be a clone. Something that can be portrayed with subtlety on the page can also be portrayed with subtlety on the screen, but that’s not what happens here. When the film has to break into the story to tell us what we should be learning from the story, it’s a sign that the meaning of the tale has perhaps taken a backseat to its bells and whistles. That said, the bells and whistles here are pretty impressive.
Final Verdict: The technical aspects of Cloud Atlas, its use of make-up and costuming and its experimental structure, will wow audiences. Its two futuristic narratives alone are worth the price of admission. However, some audiences will feel its length, because the four other stories move too quickly to allow full investment in their characters, and because the film’s philosophical message is more told than shown.