TIFF 2012: Cloud Atlas Review

Cloud Atlas
Directed by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer
Written by: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer (screenplay), David Mitchell (novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant

The idea that certain books can be unfilmable is one that has been around for ages, and on the surface, it seems to make perfect sense. Some stories simply cannot be translated to a visual medium, much less within a two or three hour time limit. Given the advent of computer graphics and cheap digital effects, however, that notion is slowly being obliterated as more and more filmmakers are finding creative ways to bring these complicated stories to the screen in satisfying ways. Cloud Atlas is easily one of the most ambitious attempts to date and it really must be seen to be believed.

Andy and Lana Wachowski have taken on plenty of filmmaking challenges before, having led part of the digital revolution with The Matrix trilogy and then emulating anime with live action in Speed Racer. Tom Tykwer is also no stranger to difficult adaptations, having brought Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer to the big screen. Tackling David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, however, is another matter entirely. Not only does it interweave six different storylines from six different time periods, but it also tells them in forward and then reverse chronological order. Their collaboration is the most expensive independent movie ever made, but does it actually culminate in brilliance or does it collapse under its own weight? Opinions are already across the board, but I’m casting my vote for brilliance right now.

As the plot threads are introduced, the vastness of the story begins to unfold. Tom Hanks is an old man from a primitive tribe in a post-apocalyptic future. Ben Whishaw is a young English musician in the 1930s contemplating suicide. Halle Berry is a plucky investigative journalist in 1970s San Francisco. Jim Broadbent is a book publisher in the present day whose top client is an unsavoury criminal. Jim Sturgess is a notary in the South Pacific in the mid-1800s who helps a stowaway on board his ship. Doona Bae is a genetically-engineered clone in a dystopian future born into a life of slavery.

Clearly these stories vary wildly in terms of tone and visuals, and the filmmakers divvied them up in the most logical manner possible: the Wachowskis took the more fantastical segments (the two in the future and the one in the 1800s), while Tykwer took the more straightforward ones in the middle. In a way, Cloud Atlas resembles an anthology film, the difference being that the segments are all intercut with one another. The individual stories are pretty compelling in and of themselves, but a viewer’s true appreciation of the movie will ultimately depend on whether or not they can see all the pieces fitting together into a coherent whole.

Plenty of movies have successfully juggled three or four storylines before, but six is a massive undertaking. Cloud Atlas asks a lot of the audience, and yet the directors have gone to great lengths to make it all fit together as tightly as possible. I can’t speak to the faithfulness of the adaptation, but I was impressed by how fluidly they were able to jump between the time periods using visual matches and simultaneous moments of tension to ease the transitions. There are a lot of plates spinning throughout this film, and never once do they drop — with the exception of a beautiful (and perhaps tongue-in-cheek) shot of plates literally being dropped in slow motion.

In terms of pacing, the movie takes a while to get going, lumbering along as it sets all of the stories in motion. You are definitely aware of the three hour run time simply because of the sheer scope of the storytelling and the dizzying number of cuts between segments. That being said, each storyline does build to its own payoff, and in general there is a decent amount of action (more than I was initially expecting anyway). The dystopian future storyline contains some of the best Wachowski action sequences and special effects wizardry since The Matrix, and proves once again that they are adept at mixing big ideas with exciting set pieces.

The one creative decision that will probably be the most divisive among viewers is the choice to have the same actors playing a different role in each storyline, often with very extreme forms of make-up and special effects applied to make them blend in. Sometimes it is played for laughs (Tom Hanks as the delightfully deranged gangster turned author Dermot Hoggins, for example), but sometimes it distracts from an otherwise serious dramatic scene. At worst, it could even be considered offensive to have white actors being given Asian makeovers, although they were careful not to have any white people recast as black characters. I think the thematic value justifies these peculiarities, but others might not agree.

Fortunately, the ensemble cast is up to the task of playing multiple roles and seem to be having a lot of fun with it. Hugo Weaving is called upon to play a villain in almost every time period as per usual, even if it means dressing in drag as Nurse Noakes. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are both solid in the film, and they manage to sell some of the more outlandish concepts such as the weird language of the post-apocalyptic time period. Overall, I can’t think of a single weak link in the cast.

It’s pretty clear that the movie is all about interconnectedness, not just among different people, but also between different places and time periods. There are no big reveals or “aha” moments, although the dialogue spells a few things out and each storyline also features a character discovering one of the stories from an earlier time period. Viewers looking for a single moment to tie everything together will be left scratching their heads, but the good news is that at no point is it overwhelming or incoherent. The various spiritual and religious themes are also never explicitly stated although they are certainly there if you care to delve into them. It helps that the movie has its fair share of humour, which keeps it from feeling too stuffy and pretentious.

Cloud Atlas the kind of film that I would normally say is not for everyone, but in a weird way, the movie really does have something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for spaceships and laser guns, a noir-ish crime thriller, a tragic romance, a period drama, or old folks whimsically breaking out of a nursing home, it’s all here. Unfortunately, it also means that most viewers will be drawn to certain segments over others, making the experience inherently uneven. Either way, if you’re a serious fan of cinema, this is a movie that you need to see. You may not love it, but the pure ambition and storytelling skill on display is simply incredible and will not soon be forgotten. — Sean

SCORE: 4 stars

Recommended If You Like: The Fountain, Babel, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

  • Goon

    Now if we could finally correct your Speed Racer opinion :P

  • I’m waiting for a 3D re-release before I give that one another chance.

  • rjdelight

    Great review. Wasn’t really paying attention to this movie, but the more I read and the more I see, the more I need to see this right now. I didn’t even know Keith David was in it, but that pic is pure badassery.

  • anonymiss

    great review sean. i’m soooo excited!!!!

  • Bryan

    I’m so jazzed for this film now that you loved it, Sean. Seriously, after 200 or so podcasts, you’ve become one of my most trusted reviewers, except for when you’re wrong (/joke)…

    That said, I don’t get why the actors playing the same roles throughout the vignettes is strange, because in the novel they make very clear that these characters are all interconnected throughout time, be it by that tattoo or by physical resemblance or by a line or what have you. I can’t wait to see how they pull it off. And I had no idea that director was the same as PERFUME – easily one of the most underrated movies of the decade. Whoever’s reading this who hasn’t seen it, see PERFUME immediately. Peace…

  • Kasper

    Nice review, Sean. I completely agree.

    You should consider posting your written reviews on Letterboxd as well.