I’m certain that Cloud Atlas will be one of the most divisive movies of 2012. There are parts of it that are wonderfully written, skillfully acted, deftly directed and beautifully filmed. There are also parts of it that are jarring, confusing, and incongruous. Some people will love its boldness and complexity. Others will find it a sloppy mess. As for me, my head is still spinning five days after watching the movie. After having time to digest it, I still feel that Cloud Atlas was more interesting than good. [Mild spoilers ahead!]
For those of you that don’t know the story behind the movie, Cloud Atlas is based on David Mitchell’s book of the same name. It tells six different stories set in different time periods. The idea is that each character’s soul is reincarnated in a different era. The book tells the story chronologically up until the midpoint. From there, the story flows backwards in time, wrapping up each tale.
The movie eschew’s Mitchell’s structure and hops around time periods several times throughout the movie. Each actor plays multiple roles (reincarnated souls, remember?), sometimes portraying someone of a different race or gender. One of the problems with the film, particularly in the beginning, is that the cuts between eras feel abrupt and jarring. This will baffle some moviegoers, almost as if they have to work in order to figure out what’s going on. Adding to the incongruity is that the six stories were written and directed by two teams. The 19th century tale and the two future stories were handled by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix), while the other three were handled by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). At times, they blend together smoothly. At times, the cuts will make you feel like you were hit over the head with a cast iron frying pan.
For simplicities sake, I’m going to comment on the six storylines individually.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: This story is about a naive American notary in the 1850s. He gets shipwrecked on an island, makes a doctor friend, and makes a slave friend. The doctor turns out to be an opportunistic knob, while the slave ends up saving his life. He returns to America vowing not to support slavery.
While the moral is uplifting, this plot was kind of boring and predictable. Watching a guy getting progressively sicker isn’t fun, especially when you know that he’ll eventually get saved by his newfound slave friend.
Letters from Zedelghem: These scenes were much better. The protagonist is a bisexual music composer named Robert Frobisher. While he has been a lowly prostitute, he seeks fame and fortune through music. To achieve his goals, he interns for a famous composer while boning the composer’s wife on the side (free of charge). He composes the hauntingly beautiful “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, but fortune and glory are exchanged for blackmail and shootings. In addition to the movie scenes, the story is told through letters from Frobisher to his love, Rufus Sixsmith. I really enjoyed the blend of drama and romance in this plot.
Half-Lives — The First Luisa Rey Mystery: This was an enjoyable mystery set in ’70s San Francisco. It was intriguing, with a sprinkle of thrills. I enjoyed seeing familiar San Francisco streets and scenes. The story made me wish that I could spend a year in the ’70s; disco, drugs, careless sex, and polyester get a bad rap. Also, Keith David was completely awesome as a ’70s African-American. He was like Shaft’s bad-ass uncle. Halle Berry was a great ’70s hottie too.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: This modern-day story was uneven, but had some enjoyable moments. The main character is a publisher that suddenly has success when his criminal client’s book gets hot after said criminal kills a critic. Unfortunately, the criminal’s pals want a cut of the book’s revenues. The publisher goes on the run, but gets trapped in a nursing home that’s more like a prison. From there, the story becomes a geriatric version of The Great Escape.
Tom Hanks was awesome as a British thug, Hugo Weaving was hilarious as a menacing female nurse, and Jim Broadbent was charming as the lead.
An Orison of Sonmi~451: This was my favorite plot of the movie and a reminder that the Wachowski siblings excel at sci-fi. It takes place in the future, in a utopian city called New Seoul. Regular people are served by genetically cloned “fabricants” that are promised upward mobility if they perform their jobs well. The reality of fabricant life is disturbing.
Of course there are rebels that want to reveal the truth about fabricants. One of the rebels helps a fabricant named Sonmi 451 live a free life and inspire a revolution (that unfortunately leads to the downfall of civilization). This story is full of action scenes and laser beams, but also has romantic and macabre moments. It was the most interesting, complex, and surprising tale of the six.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After: This story takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Tom Hanks plays a goat herder living a primitive life with a tribe. Halle Berry is one of the few people left that has ties to technology. Naturally, the tribespeople are plagued by marauding a-holes wearing face paint. After some tribulations, Hanks has to lead Berry up a mountain to reach some forbidden technology. Adventure ensues, villains attack, and truths are revealed.
The weird thing about this storyline is that the apocalyptic event has lead to a devolution of the English language. When I was talking about this plot with my friend Paul, I referred to it as “The Cajun goat herders story.” The English spoken reminded me of Adam Sandler in The Waterboy. Paul mentioned that it reminded him of the way the tribal kids spoke in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The wacky dialogue took away from this story. I kept waiting for Bobby Boucher to run in and save Hanks/Berry with a vicious tackle. Also, Halle Berry stole Princess Leia’s white outfit and it miraculously remained clean throughout a treacherous mountain trek.
Individually, I liked or loved most of the stories. In the book they’re tied together organically. For example, Luisa Rey reads Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith while Sonmi watches a televised dramatization of Cavendish’s adventures. The movie uses these devices too, but doesn’t follow the same order as the book. Instead, they’re interwoven randomly. Some of the individual stories themselves are told in a time-hopping fashion too. It’s confounding because most of the stories are very good on their own, but something is taken away from the manner in which everything is combined.
The transitions between stories — of which there are like 100 — can be disconcerting. The constant time-hopping makes the number of characters hard to keep track of, especially in the beginning. At times, the movie made me feel a bit stupid. Generally speaking, enjoyable entertainment shouldn’t make you feel dumb.
I’m confident that some people and critics will find Cloud Atlas bold and clever. I’m also confident that some people and critics will find it confusing and haphazardly constructed. All of it is true. Cloud Atlas is a bold and clever movie that’s confusing and haphazardly constructed. I enjoyed, but I’m still not sure if what I saw was very good. Like I said in the intro, it was more interesting than good.