Monday, November 12, 2012

Cloud Atlas (Theatrical Review)

Cloud Atlas (2012)
Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi, 164 minutes
Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski  
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant

How do you even begin to write a review for Cloud Atlas? I saw it two days ago, and woke up at 4:15 this morning, thinking about how to organize my thoughts into a coherent assessment. 

I will probably fail.

If I were to attempt to sum up the movie in a single paragraph, I would say that it deals with how souls change over time. We are shown six distinct time periods. Several actors appear as six different characters across these six moments in time. Oh, the time periods all feature different genres too. I would imagine the movie is attempting to make us question the meaning of life itself, and how it might be represented on some sort of eternal scale. It's like watching the offspring of Mulholland Dr. and Inception playing on a holodeck, featuring six worlds across 500 years, using a Memento-style narrative.

In order to make sense of the movie and give it an accurate grade, I would have to read the book (unlikely), and watch it at least one more time (very likely when the Blu-ray is released). For now, I'll document my thoughts to see whether subsequent viewings change my opinion.

The movie is based on the book by David Mitchell, who reportedly wrote stories for the six different time periods, utilizing six different genres, and then drew them together as the story progressed. That structure reminds me of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, although I doubt it matches Hyperion in terms of quality. I highly recommend Hyperion to anyone who appreciates Cloud Atlas. In terms of subject matter, I'm reminded of the Deverry series, written by Katharine Kerr. It also jumps around in time, across centuries, and uses the theme of souls being continually drawn to one another. I wonder whether Mitchell is a fan?

The six time periods used in the movie are 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and the twenty-fourth century.

Through these six stories, we learn that the souls of some of the characters involved also travel through time. However, they may change from male to female, and change race, or sexual orientation. Some souls are evil in every setting, while others switch from evil, or neutral, to good. I won't reveal any of that information because it's better to discover it for yourself.

The biggest problem with the movie is the way the story keeps switching from one time period to another. Instead of showing each story arc from beginning to end, we are often shown two or three minutes in one time period before jumping to another. This has the effect of making it clear that the characters (or souls) exist in several or (in some cases) all of the time periods, and that's a good thing. But it also prevented me from becoming too emotionally attached to any of the characters. I found that I didn't really care about their struggles.

The earliest story takes place on a ship (South Pacific), and moves through a hotel in the 1930s (Scotland), to San Francisco in 1973, a party set in an English hotel in the present day, before visiting the future (Neo Seoul) and far future. So you'll see two period pieces, a sequence that reminded me of The Streets of San Francisco, a story set in our current time, a science fiction segment that looks like Blade Runner, The Matrix and The Fifth Element, and a post-apocalyptic tale set more than 300 years in the future.

Technology ranges from primitive to futuristic, with the final segment being a curious blend of both.

The strongest of the stories are the final three chronologically. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a book publisher who desperately needs money. This segment features a lot of humor and had the audience laughing throughout. The Neo Seoul story features Sonmi-451 (Bae), who is aided in her quest by Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess). Here we see plenty of futuristic shots and an elaborate chase scene which would fit well in any science fiction movie. The final segment sees Zachry (Hanks) meet Meronym (Berry). Although the two are from vastly different backgrounds, they form a bond. It's here that the biggest struggle between good and evil takes place, and it shows how Zachry's soul evolves from what it once was.

None of the stories are straightforward. Most are not properly resolved. I think the point is not the quests themselves, but the overall passage of the souls of the recurring characters.

I'm probably not making much sense.

Cloud Atlas is something you need to experience for yourself, but only if you are the kind of person open to analysis and repeat viewings. This is not a coherent story with a linear structure. If you do decide it's for you, try to enjoy the individual scenes for what they are. If you are anything like me, you'll reflect on what you have seen over the next few days and things will start to take on some kind of meaning. It's certainly one of the most ambitious cinematic undertakings I have ever witnessed.

Overall provisional score 3.5/5

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  1. Great post, Steve. Every review I've read so far says it's nearly impossible to describe so you did a pretty good job. Waiting for this one to open around here...

    1. Thanks Fernando, it isn't easy to review. I could tell you every event I can remember, and I still don't think it would be a spoiler. It's the kind of movie that needs multiple viewings, and everyone will see something different.

  2. Good review Steve. It’s ambitions aren’t as smart or profound as they’d like to think they are, but the film I still something that’s worth watching and being very, very entertained by. If only it had a chance to make all of it’s money back.

    1. Thanks Dan. Yes, it's worth watching. A tough one to review though. I wonder what I will make of it when I see it again?