Laremy’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ Review: Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis Bring Another Massive Thinker to the Big Screen [TIFF 2012]
Posted on Saturday, September 8th, 2012 by Laremy Legel
The themes of Cloud Atlas are legion, and the 160 minutes the film spans are epic. Six or seven plots are considered, depending how you define your storylines, and the time period ranges from 1849 to somewhere 400 years into the distant future. What I’m getting at here is the grandness of the scope, the giantess of the spectacle, the massive overarching ambition of the work. Co-writers and directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski have delivered a weighty film tome for our analysis, and I have a feeling this one is going to be spurring conversations for years to come.
- It’s 1849, slavery is rampant, and a perilous sea voyage awaits a businessman …
- The year is 1936, and a young composer seeks to revive an elder master …
- In 1973 a reporter gets wind of a story with life and death consequences …
- Then we have modern day London, and a book publisher falls upon hard times…
- 112 years from today, an engineered servant girl finds herself in an unfathomable
- position …
- Finally, around the year 2250, an unlikely duo teams up, seeking long forgotten knowledge, battling barbarians and hallucinations to do so …
So how in the world could all these stories tie together? That’s the mystery and joy of Cloud Atlas, as strange and profound a film as you’re likely to see this
Yes indeed, Cloud Atlas is a huge movie, the sort of film you could build a college course around. Is it completely cohesive? I’d have to argue it’s not, but
my respect for the effort far outweighs my concern over clarity issues. I wouldn’t recommend anyone walk in there that didn’t want to ponder the very meaning
of life, but, given that stipulation, it’s the exact sort of film we need directors attempting. If art informs culture, and surely it does, then you want your artists
asking the big questions. That’s all Cloud Atlas does, and though the film takes pains to point out that change agents rarely reap the benefits of their
revolutions, they are no less noble for their transcendent nature.
To that end, Cloud Atlas is a giant question and answer session wrapped in an occasionally wacky narrative. Tom Hanks plays five parts, including
(but not limited to) a doctor, nuclear scientist, and a homicidal gangster. Clearly this must be considered an actor’s film, first and foremost, as Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Keith David, and Jim Sturgess all pull at least double duty acting across the generations.
The acting is another area where a “normal” critique doesn’t feel right, because Hanks and Berry are generally great in this film, but not always, and breaking down the whys and hows only leads to spoilers. This just won’t do for a film as profound at Cloud Atlas. Still, I’d love to ponder a few of the larger themes of the film, if only to start a conversation, to start breaking down the layers of this multi-faceted work.
A few dominant theories I noticed, and there are probably a dozen, went a little like this …
The morally corrupt system must be torn down, we must all fight to teach each other the truth, and change is deemed impossible right up until it becomes inevitable. A world in constant flux is the only sure thing, and injustice will only be tolerated for so long. Certain messages are rammed home again and again in Cloud Atlas: the notion that we’re all bound together, that the strong can only feed upon the meek for so long, and that our partnerships with loved ones are exponentially greater than any individual could hope to accomplish.
Much as in The Matrix, it’s the system itself that’s on trial in Cloud Atlas, for this is a film that demands a questioning of our current socio-economic constructs. With each moment we choose our destiny, for kindness or for cruelty, and each new moment presents an opportunity for universe-altering change.
Most of all, Cloud Atlas tackles slavery and injustice. Yes, slavery in the traditional sense of human trafficking, but also in looking at power imbalances as a whole, as when someone else trades upon your creativity to improve their own reputation. A slavery of the future, that could be a result of bio-engineering, is a main plot point. The slavery that comes from the loss of agency and freedom gets many scenes; the shackles of the mind and ageism receive a trial; and when our compromises are based entirely upon expediency Cloud Atlas weeps.
Still, there’s more. The slavery we face in our definitions of people, and the potential servitude of our closely held beliefs. Faith is handled in a tricky manner throughout Cloud Atlas, as it is a deeply humanistic movie, with clear solutions for problems — solutions that aren’t necessarily “God” based — appearing all around the protagonists. Conversely, man-made structures often seek to undermine quality of life for a subset of the societies in question, and “faith” in humanity is generally required to set things on the correct course again.
Finding cinematic comparisons for Cloud Atlas is no easy thing, as rare is the film that tries for six meaningful storylines, but Magnolia meets Love Actually meets Glory meets Apocalypto springs to mind. Naturally, it is none of these movies in full, just moments and minutes, flashes of the story of humanity sculpted together.
My favorite section of the film was easily the story of the engineered servant girl named Sonmi-451 (played by Doona Bae). This portion could have been its own 90-minute movie, and had they went that route this likely would have been a far more accessible film, at least to general audiences. My least favorite sections included modern day London and the perilous sea voyage. Both had moments of greatness embedded, but levity overpowered the former while a one-note through line weakened the latter.
Cloud Atlas should absolutely be on your radar if you’re a lover of film. Though it requires patience, it points out, once again and with feeling, that at the
end of our existence, the love and our stories are all that remain.
/Film rating: 8 out of 10