Directed by no less than 3 people, the Matrix creators The Wachowskis and Run, Lola, Run director Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas is six movies happening at once on top of each other. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, a rather complicated thing and while the stories themselves are fairly easy to keep straight how they all hang together is not necessarily obvious, and some little things are a bit too obscure to pick up unless you’ve read the novel. At the very least, since the scope of the film is so huge you’re going to get your money’s worth.
There are six distinct plots with different characters played by the same actors. Try to follow: There is the 1800’s story of a wealthy man (Jim Sturgess) on a trip across the sea with a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) and the doctor (Tom Hanks) taking care of him. In 1931 a young, temperamental composer (Ben Wishaw) works for an older man (Jim Broadbent) to write music. In the 1970s a journalist (Halle Berry) is investigating a nuclear plant run by a shady business man (Hugh Grant) and is stalked by a killer (Hugo Weaving). In 2012 an elderly book publicist (Broadbent, again) is sent to an old folks home by his bitter brother (Grant, again, doing a fantastic vocal performance). In a menacing 2100’s, a human slave, Sonmi–451 (Doona Bae) is caught in a revolution against the totalitarian capitalist society. And finally hundreds of years after that in the destroyed ruins of the Earth, a savage (Hanks, again) meets an advanced woman (Berry, again) who needs him to take her on a quest. As you can see, it’s a lot. Stick around when the credits roll to see who played who.
Throughout you have to remind yourself of which storyline is which, because single scenes can take place over the course of mere seconds. It is a movie that you can’t just sit down and passively watch. The movie frequently cuts between the different plots but it's less about the connective story tissue between the scenes and more about the pacing, like cut away from the middle of one scene to increase the tension. Sometimes, you'll see things referenced in the other plots, like when the elderly songwriter has a vision of the future. What's really cool is if you don't want to follow the multitude of stories you can just watch it on a scene by scene basis.
There is a distinct theme of reincarnation with the same person type popping up in different bodies over the centuries. When you see Tom Hanks playing a scheming man in the 1800s, then a murderous goon in 2012, it resonates to the plotline set in the far–flung future as a post–apocalyptic savage and you keep expecting him to do something horrible. It’s actually rather ingenious as when Hanks and Berry in the 1970s miss their chance at love they get their redemption in the future.
It’s not as if “love conquers time and space” is the main point, it’s more about history repeating itself; you see how marginalized groups are beaten down by the powerful in all of the timelines. This happens with the slave in the 1800s, or the old folks home residents in 2012, or the dystopian future slaves in the 2100’s. But while some change over the centuries, there are some that remain steadfastly the same, as Hugo Weaving’s various bad guys throughout history. He plays a contract killer, a nasty voice / demon inside Hanks' head, and dresses up as a woman as a power–abusing nurse in modern times, and a few more.
With so much stuff being thrown at you, a few things will slip by. The future–speak of the post–apocalyptic section is English but a lot of it sounds like gibberish at times feeling like a foreign–language film without subtitles. However, the actors do such a good job conveying the emotion of what they're saying. Unfortunately, some of the plot details get lost, I still have no idea what Berry's character is looking for. But even if the movie bobbles details, you can just sit back in awe of the production design of the slick future or the destroyed ruins of what comes after. Also since the movie is so big, it happily juggles tones: the old man in the nursing home is a comedic great escape which contrasts nicely with the grime hopelessness of the future. Probably the one that works the best emotionally is the cloned worker Sonmi–451 who becomes aware of the lies that her society and the man who comes to save her. Not only does it have a lot of cool sci–fi action, it builds to a very powerful ending.
The reach of Cloud Atlas may exceed its grasp but it's compelling which is quite a complement considering its marathon running time. Nobody may ever get everything that is happening but credit is due for a single movie to try to reach across, basically, everything ever in existence. V
Directed by Tom Tykwer,
Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry
and Hugh Grant