Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
US theatrical: 26 Oct 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 22 Feb 2013 (General release)
Art is never easy. It’s confused and contemplative. It doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation and doesn’t care if you “get it” or not. No, art exists for the sake of itself, to prove it can be done, and more importantly, endure beyond said basics. Yes, many people claim to be making it, but overall, their ambitions are met with rejection, and more times than not, the cold slap of the obvious truth. While it may be in the eye of the beholder, as with beauty, it’s also exhilarating, frustrating, and soul saving. That’s the response you will have to the latest expression imagination and chutzpah from Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and collaborator Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), an adaptation of the sprawling epic novel Cloud Atlas. It may not be a masterpiece, but not all art is. Instead, it’s a visionary work that captures a creative trio at the top of their game, delivering something that is spellbinding, thoughtful, and truly stunning,.
Interweaving six stories across eons and possible realities, we begin with an old man (Tom Hanks), recounting a fireside tale which starts it all. In 1850, a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) sales the Pacific to look in on some business holdings. There, he is befriended by a slave (David Gyasi) and preyed upon by an unethical doctor (Hanks). Then we move to the composer (Ben Whishaw) who is inspired by the journal of the aforementioned journey. It’s England in 1931 and he is trying to balance his love of a young physicist (James D’Arcy) and the demands of working as the assistant of an aging maestro (Jim Broadbent). The eventual music that comes out of their “collaboration” inspires an investigative journalist in 1970’s San Francisco. Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is attempting to uncover the truth about a possible problem at a nuclear reactor run by a shady businessman (Hugh Grant).
Her discovery, and friendship with an aspiring mystery loving teen (Brody Nicolas Lee) leads to the next narrative, the story of a publisher (Broadbent) who gets in trouble with a gangster client, and resorts to asking his brother for help. He ends up in a nursing home against his will. We eventually learn that a movie was made of this incident, and it becomes the inspiration for a genetically engineering servant girl (Doona Bae) who has escaped from her life as part of a Future Seoul fast food conglomerate. With the help of a rebel (Sturgess), she is used as a propaganda machine to bring down an oppressive regime. Finally, he thoughtful and profound words have become the basis for a religion in a far off distant future where the planet has been destroyed by radiation. Living like savages, a father (Hanks) tries to protect his family from cannibals while helping one of the last members of a technologically advanced race (Berry) contact possible help off planet.
Destined to divide critics and play to empty Cineplexes, Cloud Atlas is a marvel. It’s the “wow factor” captured in nearly three hours of imaginative moviemaking. It takes risks, it rewrites rules, and just when you think it can’t get any more outrageous, it dives into a pool of pure absurdity and comes out contemplating the role of humans on our humble planet. This is a film about freedom, about the distance you will travel to discover your purpose and place among the stars. Each story seems to suggest the other, be it a musician struggling for recognition or a slick literary type seeking redemption. By playing within all genre types (we move from period drama to romance to thriller to sci-fi to comedy with relative ease), the trio behind the lens argue for the value in cooperation. Since this is a film in which the collaboration between divergent people figures largely, it makes sense that three very distinct personas played director.
Not that you could ever tell. Cloud Atlas is seamless, taking the literary storyline originally told chronologically and mixing it up, allowing all the segments to reinterpret and rewrite the previous. When we discover that our lady reporter falls for our musician’s symphony, it’s a natural connection. Similarly, when a future society shuns civilization for the cut throat life of the land, it rings with a kind of crazy been-there logic. By using the same actors in different roles (including genders, races, and species), we see just how linked the entirety of mankind is. Everyone here is brilliant, from Hanks (who perhaps has the hardest job of anyone in the cast) to an often indistinguishable Grant. Even Berry, who occasionally uses her looks to compensate for a lack of real range, shines here.
But it’s the thinking that makes Cloud Atlas so special. It’s the ideas - about life, about wanting, about the nature of good and evil, about how events before influence things present - that really expands its original horizons. It requires you drop preconceptions, asks you to bank large amounts of suspended disbelief. There are references to everyone’s work in the past, from the future shock slickness of The Matrix to Tykwer’s terrific Perfume: The Story of a Murderer...and yet, there is no real creative copycatting. What the Wachowskis and Tykwer have created here is a monument to individual ingenuity. They are taking the words of an author, the visual acumen of three filmmakers, and the performance artistry of all the actors and crew members to make one grand, glorious statement.
And what a wonderfully weird and eye opening declaration it is. Cloud Atlas is like a gunslinger, standing at the edge of town, hand on pistol, prepared to return whatever fire you feel it deserves. It doesn’t apologize for being unusual and quirky. It panders as much as it puts off. It will end up either at the top of many year-end Best-of lists, or at the bottom of 2012’s worst. There’s no middle ground. There’s no compromise. Cloud Atlas is a mystery that will require multiple viewings to uncover its many meanings. It is not an easy experience… but then again, most art isn’t. It’s also why it’s so satisfying.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.