Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)
“Everything Is Connected”
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Director: The Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant
Synopsis: An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
The individual stories in Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis’ sprawling, wildly ambitious adaptation of the best-seller by David Mitchell, are relatively simple and straightforward, but the structure of the movie – the way it weaves six separate strands together – makes them seem more complicated than they are. It has to be this way, though, because Cloud Atlas would not be so effective if it were structured in any other way. Having said that, the film’s restless darting from one of six eras to another over such a long running time not only presents the viewer with a challenge to keep up with all the various plot-lines, but also raises the question of whether we are really watching a profound work of art, or a simple idea given undeserved weight through its complicated structure.
Each strand follows the evolution – and, in some cases, devolution – of a collection of souls over a period of 500 years, from the mid-18th Century to the 24th. Pull apart those intertwining stories and this is what you’ll find: in 1849 a young solicitor (Jim Sturgess – Fifty Dead Men Walking, Kidnapping Freddy Heineken) is on a sea voyage to secure a slave-trading deal for his employer – who also happens to be his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving – The Matrix, Last Ride). The voyage is uneventful apart from two incidents: Firstly, he comes to the aid of an escaped slave (David Gyasi – The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) who has stowed away on the ship; secondly, he is slowly being poisoned by the ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks) who covets his wealth. In 1936, a dissolute young composer (Ben Whishaw – Suffragette, Spectre) who writes a work of great beauty while working as an assistant for a once-great composer (Jim Broadbent – Big Game, Eddie the Eagle), finds himself blackmailed by his employer, who wishes to claim credit for the piece. In 1973, the life of a female reporter (Halle Berry – The Rich Man’s Wife, The Call) is endangered after she discovers design flaws in a nuclear power station. In 2012, the owner of a small publishing company (Broadbent) finds himself imprisoned in a ‘retirement home’ he was tricked into visiting by his cuckolded brother (Hugh Grant – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, The Man from U.N.C.L.E). In a dystopian future, a clone (Doona Bae) is awoken to the injustice of her treatment at the hands of a totalitarian government by the leader of a rebel movement (Sturgess) committed to its downfall. Finally, in a post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Hanks) overcomes his fears and superstitions by helping a female visitor (Berry) from a more technologically-advanced part of the world to venture into forbidden areas of his island.
The universal theme addressed in some form by each story in Cloud Atlas is encapsulated in the words spoken by Sonmi-451, the subservient clone who triggers a revolution: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” From the simplicity of these words emerges a complex interwoven pattern in which the smallest of actions in one life can have profound implications in another. More often, though, these influences are subtle, buried within the detail of each story (a favourite device of the Wachowskis), a prize for the observant viewer. As is often the case in a multi-stranded movie, the stories compete with one another for our attention. But they do so politely, sometimes introducing their successor with overlapping dialogue or providing a final image that serves as a template for the scene to follow. It’s clever stuff, endlessly intriguing, but following six stories is tiring work, even when they are thematically connected, and it’s nearly impossible to keep everything straight in your head as you watch. Strangely, though, this doesn’t discourage us from persevering. Cloud Atlas is never boring, even when we do lose our way, which is testimony to the Wachowski’s skill as storytellers.
Watch Cloud Atlas once for an understanding of the storylines, then a second time to grasp just how each time-frame echoes the reverberations of those that surround it. Chances are, you’ll find it even more fascinating the second time around – even if you still don’t fully understand its meaning.
(Reviewed 3rd May 2016)
Click below for a free preview of the Kindle book, The Films of The Wachowskis. The book, written by the author of this review, features reviews of all of the directors’ films, and is available for anyone to buy, or to read for free if you’re a member of Kindle Unlimited. You don’t need a Kindle reader – Amazon’s Kindle app works on most popular devices and can be downloaded for free from their site.