Cloud Atlas (2012)

It’s funny how the beginning of this blog worked out. The first film I reviewed was Jack Reacher, a movie so boring it drove me to housework. My second is Cloud Atlas, which is many things but certainly not boring. It’s a labyrinth of obscure connections. In the end, I can’t say I actually understood the movie (or even that it is meant to be understood), but I certainly enjoyed trying to figure it out.

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Cloud Atlas consists of several interwoven storylines. A character’s actions resonate not only in his or her own time but also in the past and future. Much of the interconnectivity is established by having the same actor playing different roles across time and space. This is both a strength and a failing. On one hand, seeing Tom Hanks as a corrupt nineteenth-century ship’s doctor and a whistle-blowing modern scientist makes an interesting contrast. But at the same time I found myself distracted by playing “spot the actor” in each timeline. Also, I was unclear how much significance to accord each actor appearance. Sure, the aforementioned bad ship’s doctor/good scientist disparity is interesting, but what of James D’Arcy as the lover of a doomed composer and as a government official far in the future? His make-up in the latter role is so heavy that I didn’t recognize him until the credits, and discovering his dual role did not change my opinion of his characters.

cloud_hanksberryThe star-studded cast is headed by Hanks and Halle Berry; other notables include Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae. With a cast this strong and a story so convoluted, it’s hard to pick out any particular performance. Suffice to say that I was pleasantly surprised at Tom Hanks’s ability to take on multiple accents. He is such an American icon that it is sometimes easy to forget that he is also a gifted actor in his own right.

I was in awe of the cosmetic work in this film, particularly in the case of Doona Bae. Bae is a Korean actor, yet here she plays a genetically engineered clone with South Asian features and also a nineteenth-century white woman named Tilda Ewing. There is a ghost of her real race when she appears as Tilda–it is clear that Bae is the actor onscreen–yet she is also a believable white woman. Those who were up in arms about the design team’s use of “yellow face” got it all wrong. It is obvious the only intention of changing the actors’ race was to make them fit within each storyline and film’s overall message. If there ever was an appropriate use of race change onscreen, this is it.

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I understand this is a confusing review. Cloud Atlas is a confusing film. In many ways it is unreviewable. You may not like it, but the sheer ambition of the project makes it impossible to discount. I really can’t even say what the movie is about. Like the recent indie release Upstream Color, it is open for interpretation. One reading is that it is a study of different forms of storytelling. Each timeline represents a specific genre. We have the hero’s journey in the nineteenth century sea voyage, the modern investigative drama in the story of a journalist looking into corrupt business practices in 1970s San Francisco, the Matrix-style sci-fi adventure in futuristic Seoul (Neo-Seoul) and a post-apocalyptic search for a new homeland placed at some point in the distant future. The connection between each timeline demonstrates the similarities at the root of all stories.

That is the English major answer, but there is another. In Cloud Atlas, time is not a straight line. It is an ocean in which all eras exist simultaneously. We are not only affected by those we meet in our lifetime but also by those who existed before and will exist after us. Our actions have a much larger effect than we can ever realize. So we are never truly isolated, and we are all of value.

A powerful message from a very long and confusing movie. I need to watch it again.

4/5 stars

I would love to hear what you think! Please drop me a message!

Next: Silver Linings Playbook

[I own nothing related to this film.]

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5 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas (2012)

    • Thank you! It was a fascinating movie. I’m reading the book now (by David Mitchell). I’m only 100 pages in, but thus far it has succeeded at the difficult task of straddling the worlds of serious fiction and entertainment.

  1. Hello, what did you think of the book compared to the film? I hated what they did with the Frobischer story but quite liked Somni and Cavendish’s.

    • The film was certainly a Hollywood-ization of the book. To tell the truth I enjoyed the Somni portion more in the film than in the book, but only because I am a sucker for a love story. And I actually loved Ben Whishaw’s performance as Frobischer. For me, he really got at the pathos of the character.

      However, on the whole, the film really dumbed down the ideas present in the book. Unfortunately I already returned my copy of the book to the public library, so I can’t pull up the exact quotes, but I thought it was so interesting how the last line of each section signified the philosophical progression of the book– from despair to hope to despair again.

      I think the book was more about different philosophies of why we are here and how we relate to one another whereas the film was about different modes of storytelling.

      Why didn’t you like the Frobischer story?

      • They’d changed it so much from the book- a massive dumbing down. And I love Ben Wishaw, I thought he was perfectly cast, but having him make a pass at Ayres then suddenly decide to commit suicide totally changed the plot from the book and brushed over the long, slow descent in the book. The Somni section was our favourite from the film too, I think it kept a good chunk of the horror even though lots was cut.

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