Cloud Atlas

© 2012 Ray Wong

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is one of those critically acclaimed novels that are deemed to be unfilmable. Somehow, Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix series), together with Tom Tykwer (The International) manages to make a mostly-coherent epic out of it.

I won't even detail the plot, as the movie contains not one, not two, but six different stories with totally different characters. However, these stories and characters are linked not only by a clever story construct, but also by themes. In late 19th century, a trader named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is about to get into slave trade when he is poisoned by the ship doctor (Tom Hanks). In 1936, a young gay composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) becomes the protege of a famed composer, and it's at the older composer's house that Robert comes across the journals of Ewing.

In 1973, a young reporter (Halle Berry) gets a tip from a nuclear scientist Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) that something is wrong with the nuclear power plant owned by oilman Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). When Sixsmith was murdered, the reporter finds letters to Sixsmith left by Frobisher as well as a classical piece called Cloud Atlas composed by Frobisher. in 2012, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is forced into a nursing home where he plans an elaborate escape. Before then, he was about to publish a novel that details the nuclear plant incident.

In early 22nd century, a fabricant named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is rescued from her imminent fate by Agent Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess). In hiding, Sonmi-451 watches an old movie about Cavendish's adventures. In late 24th century and after "The Fall," Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his family are living in tribes when a visitor Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives. Zachry is inflicted with an inner demon that wants him to harm Meronym. When he takes Maronym to the abandoned city, they discover a message left by Sonmi-451…

The main ensemble cast portray many different characters in these six connected stories. Tom Hanks (Larry Crowne) gets to play Zachry, a scientist named Isaac Sachs, a hotel manager, among other characters. While Hanks is a good actor, the fact that his highly recognizable face is portraying these different characters -- some understated and some over the top -- is very distracting. The same is true with Halle Berry (New Year's Eve) whose two main roles are the reporter Louisa Rey and Meronym. As other characters, she too is very distracting.

Jim Broadbent (The Iron Lady) has a better job juggling between his different roles as he somehow manages to disappear in the characters. The same can be said for Hugh Grant (Music and Lyrics) who, with the help of make-up, does a good job portraying the many different characters. Jim Sturgess (One Day) should also be commended especially for playing Adam Ewing and -- with a race change -- Hae-Joo Chang. Doona Bae, in her English-speaking debut, is fantastic as Sonmi-451. She also gets to play some minor characters -- a Mexican woman comes to mind. Hugo Weaving (Happy Feet Two) is awesome as the devil, and a great comic relief as Nurse Noakes. However, he sticks out like a sore thumb with other minor characters, especially when he's playing Asians (the makeup simply doesn't work).

Tykwer and the Wachowskis have done a tremendous job deconstructing the novel and piecing everything together and give us an epic spanning over 400 years. At times, the intercutting stories seem disjointed and disorienting, and some of them seem irrelevant or too humorous to fit with the rest. Over all, however, they have done a good job maintaining a consistent tone, weaving the stories together with visual cues and thematic links. Through the use of a birthmark, the audience comes to realize that the characters that bear the same birthmark is the same soul that comes back again and again, to learn and to grow. Sometimes it fails (as in the case of Robert Frobisher), but sometimes it triumphs (such is the case with Adam Ewing or Sonmi-451).

They abandon the novel's challenging storytelling structure. Instead, they rely on a linear storytelling technique that weaves the six different stories together through artifacts from the previous story: Ewing's journal, Frobisher's Cloud Atlas and letters to Sixsmith, Cavendish's novel, a movie about Cavendish, and Sonmi's message to the world. Through these links, the filmmakers are able to help the audience understand the themes and the relations between these characters and stories.

I also understand their decision to use the same actors to make the various different roles. It is a challenge that doesn't always pay off. The fact is that these actors are not playing the same "soul" and that can be very disorienting. While it must have been fun for the actors to play, for the audience, it becomes very distracting. We start to wonder, for example, whether Tom Hanks is playing the same soul throughout the film, and then we find out that he's not. So we now question, why the heck is he playing these characters then, other than "it's fun for Tom Hanks"?

That said, Cloud Atlas is a cinematic achievement and I must give kudos for the filmmakers to at least attempt to adapt this impossible book into an epic movie that is wonderful to look at. The editing is fantastic, especially when we consider how challenging it must have been to piece all six stories and multiple characters together. That alone is a tremendous achievement, and technically Cloud Atlas is a marvel in many ways. 

Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Susan Sarandon
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Writers: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski (based on novel by David Mitchell)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  R for violence, language, sexuality, nudity, and drug use
Running Time: 172 minutes 


Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 9
Production - 9

Total - 7.9 out of 10.0 

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