Cloud Atlas – 2012
This is one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time. The movie is incredibly profound in its overall theme which is stated so beautifully at several points in the film. It says, “Our Lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and Present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” It basically means that everything we do has consequences that can ripple throughout eternity.
Cloud Atlas tells 6 different stories, all at the same time. The stories are all interesting in their own right, but what makes them so fascinating as they are told in tandem with each other, is that we can follow certain threads that link the stories together. The first takes place in the Pacific Islands in 1849. After that, Cambridge and Edinburgh in 1936. Next is San Francisco in 1973. Next is London in 2012. Then we are given Neo Soul in 2144. And finally, we have Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall in the year 2321.
It is an incredibly intellectual film. You really have to pay attention to what is going on, what is said, and who is saying it. You have to watch for hidden clues and meanings. You have to try to be an objective observer, and yet lose yourself in the subtext of the film’s underlying philosophy. It is not an easy film to watch. As a matter of fact, the film generally gets mixed reviews from critics. Some, like me, believe the movie to be a masterwork of cinematic artistry. Others just find it confusing and consequently forgettable.
Critic Calum Marsh called it, “a unique and unparalleled disaster,” and that, “its badness is fundamental, an essential aspect of the concept and its execution that I suspect is impossible to remedy or rectify.” I got this from Wikipedia. But just calling a movie bad doesn’t make it bad. See, I love the movie so much that I had to understand why Mr. Marsh hated it so profoundly. So I looked up the complete review that he wrote. He lost the first half of his credibility right at the beginning when he said that it had 7 stories going on instead of 6. He lost the second half when he got through his extensive review without having a single good thing to say about any aspect of the film. From the script to the acting, from the makeup to the cinematography, from the philosophical themes to the music, from the visuals to the editing, he couldn’t find a single thing about the film that wasn’t horribly awful. Marsh needs to understand that such an extreme position makes him lose his credibility as a critic. But then, in his 660 word review, nearly half it was just ranting, insulting, name calling, and verbal bashing. So I can easily discount his impossibly negative opinion. No film merits such a review. Even the most widely panned films of all time like Ishtar, Gigli, or even Manos: The Hands of Fate have some minor merits to their credit.
In my own assessment, there are many reasons why Cloud Atlas was so great. It is important to note that the phenomenal ensemble cast play various roles, each showing up as different characters in each of the different stories. The various roles played by a single actor vary in race and gender. It is profound in showing the idea of reincarnation and souls that are connected lifetime after lifetime. Characters that know each other in one timeline have an unexplainable sense of recognition in the next.
The stories are all told at the same time with amazing editing that takes us from story to story in sometimes rapid succession. But it all works. Each plot has its own look and feel that is quite distinct from the others, making it easy to follow each of the varied narratives. And through the genius of this broken and overlapping storytelling, the connections between them become quite evident. The different plots are so complexly interwoven that even though it will take up a significant portion of this review, I would like to copy just the 6 plot summaries from Wikipedia.
“Tribesman Zachry Bailey recounts stories to his grandchildren on an extraterrestrial Earth colony.
Pacific Islands, 1849
Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, has come to the Chatham Islands to conclude a business arrangement with Reverend Horrox and his father-in-law. In Horrox’s plantation, he witnesses the whipping of a Moriori slave, Autua, who later Stows away on the ship. Autua confronts Ewing and convinces him to advocate for Autua to join the crew as a free man. Dr Henry Goose slowly poisons Ewing, claiming it is the cure for a parasitic worm, to steal Ewing’s valuables. As Goose administers the fatal dose, Autua saves Ewing. Returning to the United States, Ewing and his wife Tilda denounce her father’s complicity in slavery and leave to join the abolition movement.
Robert Frobisher, a young English composer, finds work as an amanuensis to aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Frobisher begins reading Ewing’s journal, which he has found with the latter portion missing, among the books at Ayrs’s mansion. Ayrs demands credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” and threatens to expose Frobisher’s homosexuality if he refuses. Frobisher shoots Ayrs and flees to a hotel, where he uses the name Ewing. He finishes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” and commits suicide with a gun just before his lover Rufus Sixsmith arrives.
San Francisco, 1973
Journalist Luisa Rey meets an older Rufus Sixsmith, now a nuclear physicist. Sixsmith tips off Rey to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor run by Lloyd Hooks, but is killed by Hooks’s hitman, Bill Smoke, before he can give her a report that proves it. Rey finds Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith and tracks down a vinyl recording of Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Isaac Sachs, another scientist at the power plant, passes her a copy of Sixsmith’s report. Smoke kills Sachs by blowing up his plane and runs Rey’s car off a bridge. She escapes but the report is destroyed. With help from the plant’s head of security, Joe Napier, Rey evades another attempt on her life, which results in Smoke’s death. With another copy of the report obtained from Sixsmith’s niece, she exposes the plot to use a nuclear accident for the benefit of oil company executives, who are indicted as a result.
Sixty-five-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish reaps a windfall when Dermot Hoggins, the gangster author of Knuckle Sandwich, murders a critic who gave the novel a harsh review, generating huge sales. When Hoggins’s brothers threaten Cavendish’s life for Hoggins’s share of the profits, Cavendish asks for help from his wealthy brother, Denholme, who tells him to hide at Aurora House. On the way there, Cavendish reads a manuscript of a novel based on Luisa Rey’s story, and recalls his relationship with a woman named Ursula. He visits the house where she lived with her parents and discovers that she still lives there. Believing Aurora House is a hotel, Timothy signs papers “voluntarily” committing himself; in fact, Aurora House is a nursing home (in Ayrs’s old mansion). Denholme reveals to Timothy that he sent him there as revenge for Timothy’s affair with Denholme’s wife Georgette. The head nurse, Noakes, is abusive, and contact with the outside world is denied. Cavendish escapes with three other residents. He resumes his relationship with Ursula and writes a screenplay of his experience.
Neo Seoul, 2144
Sonmi-451 is a “fabricant”, a human cloned for slave labor, living as a server at a fast food restaurant in a dystopian South Korea. She is exposed to ideas of rebellion by another fabricant and friend, Yoona-939. After witnessing Yoona being killed for rebelling, Sonmi is rescued from captivity by Commander Hae-Joo Chang, a rebel. He exposes Sonmi to the larger world, including the banned writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and a film version of Timothy Cavendish’s “ghastly ordeal”. They are found and Sonmi is captured. Hae-Joo rescues her, introduces her to the leader of the rebel movement, and shows her that clones are not freed at the end of their contract but killed and recycled into food for other clones. Sonmi makes a public broadcast of her story and manifesto. The authorities intervene to halt the broadcast; Hae-Joo is killed in the firefight and Sonmi is recaptured. After recounting her story to an archivist, she is executed.
Big Isle (Hawaii), 106 winters after the Fall (2321)
Zachry Bailey lives in a primitive post-apocalyptic society called the Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Valley tribesmen worship Sonmi-451; their sacred text is taken from the broadcast of her manifesto. Zachry is plagued by visions of a demonic figure called Old Georgie, who urges him to give in to his fears. Zachry, his brother-in-law Adam, and his nephew are attacked by the cannibalistic Kona tribe. Zachry runs into hiding and his companions are murdered. His village is visited by Meronym, a member of the Prescients, an advanced society using the last remnants of high technology. Meronym’s mission is to find a remote communication station on Mauna Sol and send a message to Earth’s off-world colonies. Catkin, Zachry’s niece, falls sick, and in exchange for saving her, Zachry agrees to guide Meronym to the station, where Meronym reveals the true story of Sonmi-451. Returning, Zachry finds his tribe slaughtered by the Kona. He kills the sleeping Kona chief and rescues Catkin, and Meronym saves them both from the returning Kona and is in turn saved by Zachry. Zachry and Catkin join Meronym and the Prescients as their ship leaves Big Island.”
Five actors played parts in all 6 timelines: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving. For example, Hanks played Dr. Henry Goose in 1849, an unnamed hotel manager in 1936, Isaac Sachs in 1973, Dermot Hoggins in 2012, a Cavendish Look-a-like actor in 2144, and Zachry in 2321. Berry played a native woman in 1849, Jocasta Ayrs in 1936, Luisa Rey in 1973, an Indian party guest in 2012, Ovid, a medical doctor who removes Sonmi’s slave collar in 2144, and Meronym in 2321. Hugh Grant played Rev. Giles Horrox in 1849, a hotel heavy in 1936, Lloyd Hooks in 1973, Denholme Cavendish in 2012, Seer Rhee, the slave operator at the fast food restaurant in 2144, and the chief of the Kona cannibals in 2321.
Other wonderful actors like Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, and James D’Arcy also play multiple roles, though they do not appear in every different timeline. The only lead role played by a lesser known actress was Doona Bae, playing the part of Sonmi-451 in the 2144 timeline.
The script itself is nothing short of genius and was put together by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, based on the incredible book of the same name, written by David Mitchell. The way the stories are linked is fascinating to put together. In fact, I have actually read the book and can say that the movie was structured differently than the book. The film told all the stories at the same time so that the common threads of character and theme in each timeline could be seen to overlap and mingle. The book broke all the stories except one into two parts. The pattern can be seen as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, with 1 being the story of Adam Ewing, and 6 being the story of Zachry. Each telling has its advantages and disadvantages, but each was structured to fit its medium. The film would not have been so effective if it had been structured like the book and vice-versa.
As each actor passed back and forth between the different stories, they were often unrecognizable as the same person. And this is all due to the magic of a team of 45 makeup artists. The makeup, prosthetics, and hairstyling, in addition to the wonderful costume design made for a visually stunning journey. The special effects were spectacular, especially in the Neo Soul storyline.
And then there was the music. The film’s score was not only gorgeous and lush, with common themes running throughout the different eras of the movie, but it was also a distinct part of the plot. The Cloud Atlas Sextet, written by the character of Robert Frobisher in the 1936 timeline, and listened to in the 1973 timeline, and played briefly in the 2144 timeline, was haunting and insightful. It was yet another plot device that helped to tie the various stories together.
Another such plot device was a recurring, comet-shaped birthmark that showed up on the main character in each story. It appeared on Adam Ewing’s Chest, Robert Frobisher’s lower back, Luisa Rey’s shoulder, Timothy Cavendish’s upper back, Sonmi-451’s neck, and the back of Zachry’s head. It was just an intriguing little mark that drew attention to the running theme of reincarnation and the idea of history repeating itself.
Some of my favorite parts of the movie stand out to me as especially well done. There was the depiction of the soul-mate kind of relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith, though strangely enough, the two characters never spoke any lines to each other. I also loved Timothy Cavendish’s daring escape from Aurora House. Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Nurse Noakes was both funny and frightening. And the bar fight that allowed him and his friends to get away was so perfect. Get a bunch of drunk Scotsmen to fight for you, and you can’t lose.
I loved just about everything in the two latest timelines. Sonmi-451’s tragic and yet inspiring story was one that touched the heart, especially when the horrifying underbelly of the all-too-believable dystopian society is revealed, mirroring the famous tale of Soylent Green, where the dead are secretly turned into food to feed the living. Doona Bae was wonderful as the doomed fabricant whose courage changed the world and made her a goddess.
And I think my favorite parts of the movie were those that took place in the 2321 timeline. Hanks and Berry were awesome as Zachry and Meronym. The language they used was sometimes difficult to follow. It was as if English had evolved into a broken and half-forgotten dialect. But the actors spoke it easily, making it sound natural. The look of the sequences which combined primitive simplicity and savagery with the remnants of fantastic technology was perfectly executed. Even Hugo Weaving, playing the part of Old Georgie, the devil, according to Zachry’s beliefs, was wonderfully creepy as he constantly tried to get Zachry to give in to his fears and darker impulses.
Cloud Atlas was a phenomenal movie. It was quite possibly one of the most ambitious undertakings in cinematic history, but the Wachowskis along with Tom Tykwer made it work. This movie blows me out of the water every time I watch it. I highly recommend watching it. But be wary. Keep in mind that just because it might be difficult to understand, doesn’t mean it is bad. The movie requires the viewers to use their brains. And when is that ever a bad thing, especially when there is so much there to think about and imagine?