Mark Reviews Movies

Cloud Atlas


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)

Running Time: 2:52

Release Date: 10/26/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 25, 2012

Cloud Atlas is enormously ambitious in scope, bizarrely experimental in execution, and equal parts straightforward and confounding in its ideas. The film imagines itself to be a hopeful fable about the significance of any given individual for the furtherance of humanity's ideal. Pragmatically, though, that idealism is overshadowed by the cyclical nature of its six-part narrative. Here are stories about our tendency to kill, to oppress, and to conquer.

Past is not only prologue but also prophecy in this all-encompassing worldview. While witnessing how one man tries to subtly and then overtly fight the concept of slavery in the mid-19th century, we are also shown the world of a dystopian future over 100 years from the present, where, once again, one segment of society has deemed another to be inferior and subjugates them to labor and eventual death. It's no wonder the last tale—at least in terms of chronology—is set some time after "the Fall;" from what we see before that, humankind has always had, continues to retain, and will apparently forever possess a death wish to one degree or another.

The film's confidence in the better angels of our nature is affecting, even though we can't help but think that eventually the scattered remnants of humanity in that distant future will find a way to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. Considering their bloody fights for territorial dominance, they already have a good start.

One cannot be blamed for being skeptical about the thesis of the film's case, but then again, it is not often that a film goes so far as to demand that we directly confront the best and worst of ourselves—the very essence of our existence as it is defined by the past, shaped by the present, and holds the key to the future. These are lofty ideas, and for all of the film's sometimes considerable stumbles, it has the courage to follow through with them—to the end of the world and beyond. That the film cannot quite grasp what it is reaching for is undeniable, but what reach it possesses.

The screenplay by directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski intercuts a sextet of tales that stretch from the mid-1800s to an unspecified time in the future in which the majority of the remnants of humanity have abandoned or lost all but the most primitive technology. All of the stories are directly connected in ways large and small—significant and trivial—as the film gives us sights familiar and foreign—real and imagined.

For example, the first—in chronological order—tells of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), who learns of the horrors of the slave trade in the Pacific while enlisting the skills of Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) to cure him of terrible headaches. Ewing eventually shields Autua (David Gyaski), a slave, who has stowed away on Ewing's ship back home. Ewing's journal serves as the connection to Robert Frobisher's (Ben Whishaw) story in 1936, as he serves as an amanuensis for the composer Vyvyan Arys (Jim Broadbent).  Forty years later, Frobisher's lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) serves as the inciting incident for a journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who winds up investigating a nuclear reactor where Sixsmith is employed.

Rey's story is a manuscript that comes across the desk of Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), a book publisher in the present day who finds himself the victim of a prank and the newest resident at a retirement home. His story is eventually turned into a film (Cavendish is played by an actor played by Hanks) that becomes an unlikely rallying cry for a group of clones, led by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), in New Seoul in 2144, and that clone is something of a prophet or messiah in an unspecified time and place in the distant future. There, Zachry (Hanks) and Meronym (Berry) hope to discover what happened to their ancestors in a cave that Zachry's tribe believes is haunted by the Devil (Hugo Weaving, whose characters all seem to be the embodiment of some form of evil).

These are but superficial connections, giving the stories a semblance of continuity on the surface (One imagines repeated complaints of migraines in the editing room). A character in each segment also has a birthmark in the shape of a shooting star as a symbol of something. The correlation goes deeper when considering the thematic ties and the way Tykwer and the Wachowskis use their relatively limited cast to fill in roles throughout the various time frames (Some of the choices, like having Hanks play a criminal author, feel like stunts, but at times, the actors are so unrecognizable under the skillful makeup that we aren't able to consider the possibility).

Take how Hanks and Berry play two pairs of characters with the potential for a more significant relationship outside of the plot in which those characters are involved. The first, in which Rey has a discussion with scientist played by Hanks, ends with the possibility unfulfilled because of forces outside their control; the second, which takes place in that faraway future, is like some ancient promise kept—a promise to which Hanks' character in the 1970s alludes during an extended voice-over monologue.

This is dense material, and the film is actually at its strongest when it engages us in hand-holding. The scientist's monologue, which arrives at a significant turning point in all six stories, and a climactic speech about the nature of freedom lend the stories an emotional impact that is often lost amidst the constant back-and-forth-and-further-back-and-even-further-forward narrative.

It is easy to become disoriented as to the overarching purpose of Cloud Atlas as it offers stories of varying levels of interest and significance. The film's technical achievements, though, are substantial enough to forgive the film its shortcomings.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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