“Cloud Atlas” is an incredibly ambitious and fairly successful film

By Wesley Emblidge

James D’arcy and Ben Wishaw in “Cloud Atlas”

After seeing “Cloud Atlas,” the new film by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, a number of people asked me what it was about, but I was at a loss for words. “Cloud Atlas” is one of the most insanely ambitious movies of the past decade, and it’s a film we’ll likely be talking about for years. On a basic level, the film is six intertwining stories set all over the world (the universe, really) in a variety of time periods. They are all interconnected in an immense number of ways, definitely more than I could catch on a first viewing. It may not be the masterpiece it aspires to be, but it’s one of the most incredible achievements to appear on screens in recent memory.

In the book by David Mitchell (which the film is based on), the stories are in larger separated chunks. The film however, abandons this and takes one of its big risks in letting all the stories play out together throughout the runtime. A scene of distress in one of the stories may be edited together with a similar scene from another. This seems like a recipe for disaster, but miraculously, the three filmmakers make it work. Not once throughout was I confused as to what exactly was happening, and I never had trouble keeping the stories separate. That in of itself is enough of a success to make the movie great, but I haven’t even gotten to what these stories are.

In the very distant future, on a remote island, Zachary (Tom Hanks) is a part of a fairly primitive tribe of people, who live in fear of a war-painted, cannibalistic tribe of men (led by Hugh Grant). Zachary is visited by a somewhat futuristic archaeologist, Meronym (Halle Berry) who needs help navigating the island. Zachary’s tribe worships a somewhat Jesus-esque figure, Sonmi (Doona Mae), who is the subject of the next story. In the futuristic Neo Seol, Sonmi is a clone working at a restaurant who is broken out to join a rebellion against the society created in that future. Along the way, she sees clips of a movie, based on the next story, which centers around Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) being locked up in a old folks home by his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant) in modern day. Cavendish is also a publisher, and reads a novelization of the next story, focusing on journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who works to uncover a mystery surrounding an energy corporation in San Francisco in the 70s. One of her leads comes from Rufus Sixsmith, an employee of the corporation. Sixsmith is also the lover of the lead in the next story, composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw), who works with famed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) to create a new symphony in England in the 1930s. Frobisher finds journal in Ayrs’ home, which is the personal journal of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a notary traveling across the Pacific Ocean towards San Francisco on a ship, whose captain (Jim Broadbent) and doctor (Tom Hanks) disrupt things.

Confused? That’s no surprise, there’s a lot going on, leading the film to clock in at nearly three hours, however every one of those minutes is used well, at a brisk pace making those hours fly by faster than you’d imagine.

Hanks is the hero of one story, a villain in another, and appears in other more supporting roles in others. Broadbent does the same. Hugo Weaving, who I didn’t even mention before, appears all over the film as a villain, from a strange mythical creature haunting Hanks, to a hitman chasing Luisa Rey, even a female nurse working at Cavendish’s rest home. Actors don’t only play different roles, they play different ages, races and genders. One only needs to look at the cast list on IMDB to see how extensively the actors appear throughout the stories.

The makeup effects that try to transform the actors don’t always work. Weaving as a woman is especially jarring and even somewhat funny, however, in contrast I had no idea Halle Berry had played the male doctor until seeing the credit onscreen.

The stories themselves all have something going for them. The sci-fi dystopian Sonmi storyline left me fairly underwhelmed. It’s flashy with a lot of action and effects, but it has some of the most jarring makeup (many white actors like Weaving, Sturgess and Grant are not very successfully transformed into Asian characters) and what I found to be one of the weakest performances, from Doona Bae as Sonmi.

In contrast, the best is probably the story centered on Frobisher the composer, due immensely to Wishaw’s performance and some of the great music by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer. It had the most emotional impact of any of the stories, and if the film is missing anything, it’s that from all of the segments. I hoped the film would come together in the end in a somewhat more satisfying way, one last big emotional connection shared by all the characters. It doesn’t quite do that, but it still manages to be effective enough thematically.

The film took some other risks too, but separate from the massive scope and ambition of the project. The film doesn’t shy away from humor; one of the segments is almost entirely a comedy, but never gets in the way of the more dramatic or somber storylines. Every actor took a risk with this movie as well, but none more than Hugh Grant, who really has never done anything like this in his whole career. I mean, he plays a sexist CEO, a cannibalistic tribesman, and other roles nowhere near the typical rom-com fare he’s usually associated with.

There’s simply so much going on in “Cloud Atlas” that I simply can’t mention all the cast members and entire storylines It’s really a film you need to see for yourself, and one that everyone should. There will definitely be those out there who will hate it, I’m sure there already are, but at the very least we should be supporting films like this, with the hope that in the future more of them can be made. “Cloud Atlas” may not succeed everywhere it tries, but every success it does score is an immense triumph for everyone involved.


4.5/5 Stars