Review: Cloud Atlas (2012

Cloud Atlas is not as difficult to understand as you may have heard. The film is essentially neither radical in conception nor in execution. Adapting David Mitchell’s novel, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer seem to have ambitiously aspired to create the great cinematic epic of freedom; instead, Cloud Atlas is more like a grand, mad sci-fi version of Crash.

There are six different plotlines to follow, each linked to the others through the recurrence of characters and actors, patterns in the events and connections between them, thematic echoes, and so forth. The main theme is pretty much summed up by the tagline: “Everything is connected.” Down to their barest bones, the six plotlines are as follows: in 1849, a bedridden lawyer (Jim Sturgess) encounters an escaped slave stowaway (David Gyasi) on a sea voyage across the South Pacific; in 1936, an aspiring composer (Ben Whishaw) leaves his secret lover (James D’Arcy) in Cambridge and becomes an amanuensis for a famous composer (Jim Broadbent) in Scotland; in 1973 in San Francisco, a journalist (Halle Berry) investigates the safety of a nuclear power plant; in 2012 in Britain, an aging publisher with money problems (Jim Broadbent) is held against his wishes in a retirement home; in 2144 in Neo-Seoul, a clone (Doona Bae) who works at a fast-food chain becomes involved in a revolutionary movement; in 2321, a troubled goatherd (Tom Hanks) helps an emissary from a technologically-advanced civilization (Halle Berry) on her mission across the post-apocalyptic landscape.

The film’s narrative structure is different from that of Mitchell’s novel, which is a nest of stories. That is to say, in the novel, we are told the first half of each story until the sixth, which is told in its entirety, and then we get the second half of each story in reverse order. In other words, the book is like a set of those Ukrainian nesting dolls. The filmmakers chose instead to intercut the different stories. The film jumps around from time period to time period; transitions are made to highlight connections or to emphasize patterns. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have to be commended for the clarity of their parallel editing. The film could have easily been a storytelling disaster, as if someone took a hammer to those dolls. It took me some time to find my bearings, but once I did I had few problems following the six plotlines. Any fully engaged frequent filmgoer should be able to follow Cloud Atlas without serious difficulty, especially anyone who is used to multitasking online. In the sequence before the opening title, the directors open up each plotline like a tab in a Web browser. Once all six tabs are open and running, the film simply moves back and forth from tab to tab, from plotline to plotline.

It’s really nothing new though. The film’s truer claim to originality is the incredibly ambitious scope of the narrative, in telling a story that spans centuries. In that respect, I’ve never seen a film quite like it. In terms of structure, though, the film’s plot is hardly groundbreaking. Hollywood has been fascinated with multi-protagonist dramas involving several separate plotlines for some time (e.g. Traffic, 2000, Crash, 2004, and Syriana, 2005). Cloud Atlas does not contain radically new storytelling. Comparisons to The Tree of Life (2012) are way off. Yes, the conventions, the boundaries, of how to balance multiple plotlines are being tested and stretched a bit, but the real daring of the film is the scope of its story and the size of its heart, not the style of its telling. Go see Upstream Color (2013) if you want to see the boundaries of narrative being shattered.

The film is well edited in terms of narrative clarity; however, the choice to intercut the six stories, and not play them out in a nested sequence like the book, has a negative effect on the tone of the film. This is because each story is, in a way, a different genre: there is a sea voyage diary and slave narrative; an Evelyn Waugh-esque social drama; a 1970s-style progressive political thriller; a quirky British comedy; a dystopian actioner; and a post-apocalyptic adventure. When certain scenes from each plotline are intercut the change in tone can be jarring, such as when a high-stakes chase cuts to a parody of the same. The tonal dissonance degrades the emotional weight of the film.

If the structure of the film is complex, the content and themes are conventional. This is a film of platitudes more than ideas. Figuring out all the film’s patterns and analyzing the causes and effects of the events would certainly be fascinating, but any subtleties are overshadowed by voice-over narration that lays the themes on thick. “I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible? I just me her, and yet . . . I have fallen in love with Luisa Rey.” “All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended.” “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” Sententious dialogue can be handled effectively. When Sonmi-451 delivers a big speech to the rebels full of platitudes, it works. At other times, the narration is laughable. Perhaps the Wachowskis could have recruited Laurence Fishburne to give some of these lines believable gravity.

Now I come to the makeup. The principal actors play many different characters, even characters of races and genders different from their own. While this makes perfect sense on a thematic level (with the film’s vague interest in reincarnation and preoccupation with transcendence), unfortunately the poor quality of some of the makeup undercuts the message that a person can transcend race. The shoddy makeup hinders the themes. What’s more, while Tom Hanks thrives in his myriad roles (clearly relishing the chance to play different personalities and speak in different accents) some of the casting is poor. Halle Berry is one note despite her six roles, and Hugo Weaving, who shines in each new identity, is sadly relegated to secondary characters. With its ambitious scope, earnest platitudes, and bad makeup, the film has a certain mad camp appeal.

While it’s easy to celebrate the film’s belief in individual freedom, I found the weak-tea spirituality pretty bland. The film is confident that there is something more to the universe, that we are all connected, that there is a larger significance to our actions. However, Cloud Atlas is a perfect example of a common contemporary worldview that is comfortable with the spiritual so long as it is contained by abstracts: freedom, love, karma, energy, the universe (meaning not the actual thing, but a guiding force). The film and its worldview are so afraid to assign anything concrete or particular to these abstract forces. The film explains that the natural order of things is changeable and fluid, except for the love that binds everyone. I believe that love came in concrete form.

6 out of 10

Cloud Atlas (Germany/USA/Hong Kong/Singapore, 2012)

Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, & Lana Wachowski; screenplay by the Wachowskis & Tykwer, based on the novel by David Mitchell; starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant.