Cloud Atlas (2012)

Danger: 75% of people will probably hate this movie. I learned the hard way, when I took a date to see Gilliam’s “Brazil” and I sat enraptured throughout the film while she sat there hating it, that some people just don’t like the movies I like. Read my review and agree or disagree if you like, but if you plop down the cash to see ‘Cloud Atlas’ and hate it, don’t come crying to me.
Top row: 3 different roles for Halle Berry.  Bottom row: 3 different roles for Tom Hanks.

I think that the fact that I am still thinking about the movie, ‘Cloud Atlas’ almost two weeks after I went to see it is a good sign. The film is (apparently loosely) based on the controversial novel by David Mitchell (how it compares to the novel I can’t say; I haven’t read it) which wraps the threads of six different stories around each other.  These threads range from the story of an 18th century clerk/lawyer coming to the realization that slavery is immoral to a reporter in the 1970s who thinks that all is not right at a nuclear power facility, onwards to the life of a clone/slave in future Korea becoming self aware to a dystopian future in which primitives and  a representative of a technologically advanced minority speak in nearly incomprehensible pidgin-English that makes Burgess’ “Nadsat” from Clockwork Orange seem transparent in comparison.

“Cloud Atlas” is a 3 ½ hour long film that is so big it needed 3 directors; Lana and Adam Wachowski (The Matrix, etc.) and Tom Twika (Run Lola Run). And not all of it is good. But the good far outweighs the bad and I found myself wanting to talk with Annie about what the film meant after we left the theatre rather than just talking about how expensive it was or if it would do well at the box office. The author of the book upon which ‘Cloud Atlas’ was based said that as he was writing the book, he felt a little sad because, in his opinion, the book he was writing would be ‘impossible’ to translate into a film. The six different stories of the novel are told using six different literary forms. Adam Ewing, the 18th century clerk, tells his story in the form of a diary; Frobisher, the composer of ‘Cloud Atlas’, tells his story in a series of letters, another part of the book is written in the style of a genre detective novel, etc., and the author plays these different literary forms off of each other; the same characters appear in different parts of the different stories in different ways. The investigative reporter listens to a recording of ‘Cloud Atlas’ even as she is trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of Sixsmith, a physicist who was lovers with Frobisher (the composer of Cloud Atlas). Frobisher is reading the travelogue of Adam Ewing, the clerk whose story started the film.  There are other cross references within the film (both visual and narrative) that Annie tells me were a part of the novel.

One of the nice things about ‘Cloud Atlas’ is that it seems to be a novel that flirts with the concept of reincarnation without getting excessively maudlin or new-age/mystical about it.  There are just threads that follow from one story to another, allowing the viewer to draw the connections from one story to the next rather than forcing them. And the film uses the same actors to play different characters in the different stories without ever making an attempt to explain this — Tom Hanks plays the sinister doctor who is slowly poisoning Adam Ewing in the 18th century and the primitive goatherd who befriends a researcher from a more advanced group of survivors in dystopian future earth later in the film. No direct link is made other than we, as viewers, know that both parts are played by Hanks. There was a recurring birthmark shaped vaguely like a shooting star that appears and reappears on some of the characters (I thought this was heavy handed and don’t know if it appeared in the book or not), but, for the most part, the directors used a pretty light hand, implying the connection between the different characters and stories rather than stating them outright.

There were some things that didn’t work. The makeup job on Hugh Grant, in which they used prosthetic cheeks and a nose to try to make him look like a jowly old man, resulted in something that didn’t look human (he looked more like Gollum’s cousin who had just crawled out from under a rock and put on some Cabana wear). The dialogue in the latter part of the film, where Hanks and Berry converse in a futuristic pidgin English, is just too hard to understand; Annie said the meaning was easier to infer when you saw it on the page. And there were a few bits that were just a little too sentimental for my taste. But I think the director’s choice to transform the same actors into different characters made this otherwise impossible movie work. I think the parallels of experience by different people in different situations and different times which the film makers managed to evoke by using the same actors throughout the film made perfect sense to me when the film was over, even though there does not seem to be any way to describe it without making it sound contrived or gimmicky.

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