Published: November 7, 2012
Apparently, Cloud Atlas is one of the most expensive independent films ever made, and that’s perfectly understandable; it features one of the biggest, most star-studded casts assembled since Harry Potter, not to mention that it is essentially a collection of period pieces that, by their very nature, require an inordinate amount of CGI. It took three writer-directors (Tom Twyker and Lana and Andy Wachowski) and $102 million to adapt David Mitchell’s 2004 novel to the screen. While it may struggle sometimes with its sheer hugeness, Cloud Atlas is as impressive a film as could have been made with the plot material.
The cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Wishaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Most of them appear in all six of Cloud Atlas’ intertwining stories, having bigger roles in some than others. The first part, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” takes place in 1849 aboard a ship where Dr. Goose (Hanks) attempts to poison the eponymous Ewing (Sturgess) for the gold in his trunk. The second is called “Letters from Zegelhem,” in which a young gay musician named Robert Frobisher (Wishaw) runs away from his lover and home to work with a master musician (Broadbent) in 1930’s Scotland. The third- “Half-lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery”- takes place in 1973 in San Francisco, and features Halle Berry as the titular character, a reporter trying to take on a nuclear power plant. In “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” the fourth and most comedic story, the title character (Broadbent) is an elderly publisher in present-day England. He needs a place to hide to avoid the wrath of gangsters, only to be put by his brother in a retirement home which is run uncannily like a prison. In the fifth story, “The Orison of Sonmi-451,” Sonmi (Bae) is a servant clone in 2144 Neo Seoul, Korea, who escapes her situation with the help of a revolutionary (Sturgess). The sixth and final plot, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” takes place on the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian islands starting in 2321 and features Tom Hanks again as a villager named Zachry who is trying to protect his family and deal with inner demons when an outsider (Berry) comes to the islands and steals his heart.
These six tales do not run as individual segments, but rather are told a few scenes at a time. The only reason we are able to follow the relationship between the stories at all is a combination of visual and thematic cues (there is a comet-shaped birthmark that belongs to a character in every story, for instance) and just some plain old skillful editing. Editor Alexander Berner uses Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil’s gorgeously arranged string-based score, especially variations on the main theme, “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” to transition smoothly from story to story. Meanwhile, Twyker and the Wachowskis’ screenplay masterfully ensures that similarly styled action occurs as we move through the different stories, so that our usual sense of rhythm is uninterrupted and we feel a familiarity in what could have potentially been an alien, colossal mess of a film. Its uniqueness as a collective story and its formal merit are overwhelmingly evident.
That is not to say that Cloud Atlas is perfect, of course, or I would have given it a perfect rating. Its weaknesses are mostly inherent in the sheer size and scope of the project. Perhaps the most noticeable issue is the language created for the sixth tale, the furthest in the future. It is a sort of strange, bastardized English that is very difficult to understand much of the time. This is not a good thing because that particular story both starts and ends the film. It also contains perhaps an even greater share of the film’s lesson – that all time is connected – than any of the other parts. It takes an unnecessary amount of effort to follow that story, and it sticks out.
Another issue with such an ambitious project is that some actors are bound to overdo it at some point. It’s unfortunate that it had to be Tom Hanks in a comedic part, a type with which he usually excels. It is simultaneously fortunate, though, that the particular role in which he overacts gets very little screen time. Most of the time, Hanks retains his usual grand presence and versatility, and most of the cast, especially Berry and Broadbent, hold up just as well. The performances are aided by expert makeup and CGI jobs that often render the actors unrecognizable in their various parts.
On the whole, Cloud Atlas does what it is supposed to do. It impresses us with its scale and opulence and engages us by making us search for the connections between the stories and characters. It is an unforgettable experience, and while some other critics and I may not have been pleased with its excess, I maintain that, at its core, Cloud Atlas is a great accomplishment. I sense that its influence will be felt in the coming years.