Tom Hanks as Zachry and Halle Berry as Meronym. Click on the 'Play' button above to watch the trailer for Cloud Atlas.
By Simon Miraudo
February 27, 2013
(Republished June 24, 2013)
Cloud Atlas could have been a freak show. It features a cavalcade of stars - each playing multiple characters - masquerading as members of the opposite sex across six seemingly disconnected storylines that span hundreds of years. Souls recur across lifetimes. Not everyone stays the same race. Tom Hanks appears as a cockney London villain. Halle Berry dons whiteface. Jim Sturgess poses as a Korean hero, and Doona Bae pops up as a feisty Mexican woman. Hugo Weaving plays a busty nurse. I felt a lot of feelings during Cloud Atlas, many of which I’m still struggling to make sense of.
The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, have collaborated with Tom Tykwer on this adaptation of David Mitchell’s sprawling novel; an experiment so risky they had to independently fund it. You could say their nervousness is apparent from this opening excerpt of dialogue, spoken by Jim Broadbent’s book publisher Timothy Cavendish: “I believe that if you, dear Reader, can extend your patience for just a moment, you will find that there is a method to this tale of madness.” I suggest you take his advice. Forgive the barely-convincing make-up jobs and bear with the directorial trio as they swiftly transition from thread to thread. Their picture glows with a rare kind of sincerity and sweetness, making its final, saccharine moral – that the tiniest good deeds ripple throughout eternity – into something we’re more than happy to swallow.
Doona Bae as Sonmi-451
Three of the tales are helmed by the Wachowskis. In 1849, American lawyer Adam Ewing (Sturgess) befriends the escaped slave Autua (David Gyasi) on a ship crossing the South Pacific, much to the chagrin of his nefarious companion Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks). One singular gesture sets of a chain of events that ultimately inspires revolution in the year 2144. In that timeline, genetically-engineered clone Sonmi-451 (Bae) discovers the awful truth about Neo Seoul (the last vestige of humanity, if you can call it that). Centuries later, a primitive tribe is hunted by a cannibalistic shaman (Hugh Grant, I s*** you not) on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Spacewoman Meronym (Berry) arrives from an advanced civilization, requesting the timid goatherd Zachry (Hanks) be her guide. Zachry fails to inform Meronym an imaginary figure by the name of Old Georgie (Weaving) is spurring him on to murder her.
Tykwer’s portions aren’t quite so fantastical. Wunderkind musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) abandons a relationship with his beloved Rufus Sexsmith (James D’Arcy) for an opportunity to write with legendary composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent, again) circa 1936. Together they pen the melancholy ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet,’ which haunts the entire flick (Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil are responsible for the lovely score). 35 years later, journalist Luisa Rey (Berry, again) investigates a political conspiracy that, unbeknownst to her, will eventually lead to the destruction of Seoul and its rebirth as Neo Seoul. In the present, Mr. Cavendish plots a triumphant escape from a nursing home. That last one kinda lacks the scope of the others.
Halle Berry as Luisa and Keith David as Joe
Not everything works. Many of the film's lessons are laid on thick, each actor gives at least one incredibly hammy performance, some of the CGI environments feel a little flat, and the pidgin speak from the most futuristic segment is practically incomprehensible. But there's just so much movie here, it's hard not to find something to love amongst it all. I was heartened by the boldness of the choices, the conviction of the directors, and the commitment of the performers. Editor Alexander Berner is given the Herculean task of tying it all together into a three-hour montage. Its metronomic pace is relentless, yet soothing. The way in which minor climaxes coalesce every 30 minutes or so recalled R. Kelly's opus Trapped in the Closet. That is not an insult. I suspect the meaning of life can be found amongst these two works alone.
Cloud Atlas also reminded me of the underrated Knowing. Both imply a higher power is carefully plotting out our lives. In the latter, a lifelong skeptic happens upon the planet's literal design, and is forced to reconcile his feelings accordingly. Here, no one has any proof the decisions they make will reverberate in any way. The good ones simply have faith that doing the right thing will make for nicer echoes. Hanks' six characters are a nasty lot, only gradually improving as the years pass. Zachry is the best of the bunch, though even he is tormented by a figure who represents the violence his soul has wrought over past lives. A man battles against hundreds of years of instinct to simply be better. It's hard not to be buoyed by a story like that.
Jim Broadbent as Vyvyan and Ben Whishaw as Robert
The movie asserts that we are not our skin colour, nor are we our genitals. We are not even our body (the synthetic Sonmi is depicted as the most human; kind, even in earlier iterations, and ultimately remembered as a God). We are only our actions. Heaven and Hell are merely what's waiting for us in the next life, and totally dependent on our karmic debt. You may not buy into this interpretation of reincarnation (it is a little Scientologyish). However, the knowledge that Lana Wachowski was once Larry Wachowski suggests the filmmakers are less concerned with religion, and more interested in reminding us that our aesthetic differences are just an illusion. That message comes in a compelling, uncynical, often thrilling package, the likes of which we've never seen before, and will perhaps never see replicated. I will watch Cloud Atlas more than once.
Cloud Atlas is available on Quickflix from June 28, 2013.