“CLOUD ATLAS” (2012) Review
The year 2004 saw the publication of author David Mitchell’s science-fiction novel called “Cloud Atlas”. Consisting of six different stories with subtle connections, the novel won two literary awards and was nominated for a series of other awards, including the 2004 Booker Prize. But when the Wachowskis (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer decided to make a film adaptation of the novel, the trio had trouble finding financial backing.
Eventually, Grant Hill and Stefan Arndt agreed to co-produce the film and Warner Brothers Studios agreed to release it. The screenplay written by the Wachowskis and Tykwer closely followed Mitchell’s novel, with the exception of a few changes. As stated ealier, the movie consisted of the following six stories:
1849: American lawyer Adam Ewing arrives at the Chatham Islands in the Pacific, to make a business arrangement on behalf of his wealthy father-in-law, now living in San Francisco. His father-in-law is involved in a agriculture business that involves the use of Moriori slaves. After witnessing the whipping of a slave named Autua, Ewing and a Dr. Henry Goose return to San Francisco, via clipper ship. During the voyager, Ewing discovers that Autua has stowed away aboard the ship. However, he is unaware that Dr. Goose is slowly poisoning in an effort to steal the chest of gold in Ewing’s possession.
1936: English musician Robert Frobisher, who is gay, is employed as an amanuensis to famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs, allowing Frobisher the time and inspiration to compose his own masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. Ayrs wishes to take credit for the piece, and threatens to expose Frobisher’s homosexual background to the authorities if he does not comply.
1973: San Francisco journalist Luisa Rey meets by chance, Frobisher’s former lover Rufus Sixsmith, in a stalled elevator. A nuclear physicist, Sixsmith tips her off to a conspiracy regarding the safety of a new nuclear reactor, but is killed by a hitman named Bill Smoke before he can give her proof. Another employee at the power plant named Isaac Sachs becomes attracted to Luisa, eventually gives her the information, but is killed by Smoke. Luisa has find a way to expose Sixsmith and Sachs’s employer before she can be killed.
2012: British publisher Timothy Cavendish has a windfall when gangster author Dermott Hoggins, whose book he has published, infamously murders a critic and is sent to jail. When the author’s associates threaten Cavendish’s life to get his share of the profits, Cavendish turns to his brother Denholme for help. However, the brother tricks him into hiding out in a nursing home, where he is held against his will and treated poorly. Cavendish and a few of his fellow inmates plot to escape.
2144: A genetically-engineered clone server at a fast-food restaurant in Neo Seoul, Korea named Sonmi-451 is being interviewed before her execution. She recounts how one Hae-Joo Chang, a member of the local Resistance, helped to release her fom her life of servitude. Chang and other members of the Resistance reveal that clones like her are “recycled” into food for future clones. Sonmi-451 becomes determined to broadcast this information to world.
2321: A tribesman on the post-apocalypse Hawaiian Islands named Zachry lives a primitive life after most of humanity has died during “The Fall” and is plagued by guilt for not interfering in the murder of his brother-in-law, Adam, at the hands of the Kona Chief, leader of a tribe of vicious cannibals. A member of the last remnants of a technologically advanced civilization called the “Prescients” visits his tribe. In exchange for saving Zachry’s young niece from a near fatal bite, he agrees to guide Meronym into the mountains in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost station where she is able to send a message to people who have left Earth and now live on other planets.
When I first saw the trailer for “CLOUD ATLAS”, I thought it looked beautiful. My opinion of the film’s visuals have not changed one bit. However, I had no desire to see the movie. I took one look at the trailer and knew it would be faux profound and self-righteous piece of claptrap that I suspect I would find confusing. A member of my family literally had to drag me to my local theater to see the movie. Recalling my disappointment in “THE MASTER”, I decided that a nice long nap would help me overcome the movie’s 164 minutes running time.
To my surprise, I did not fall asleep, while watching “CLOUD ATLAS”. Even more surprising, I enjoyed it. Very much. I cannot explain this phenomenon. I could see that it was not the type of film that would appeal to a lot of people. The movie’s technical aspects struck me as very impressive. In that regard, the Wachowskis have never disappointed, as past movies such as “THE MATRIX” and “SPEED RACER” have proven. “CLOUD ATLAS” featured some beautiful photography from cinematographers Frank Griebe and John Toll. I was especially impressed by their work in the 1973 San Francisco, 2144 Neo Seoul and 2321 Hawaiian Island segments. However, a part of me suspect that the visual effects team supervised by Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor and the special effects team were mainly responsible for the outstanding look of the segment set in 22nd century Seoul. But one also has to account for Hugh Bateup
and Uli Hanisch’s production designs that beautifully re-created six different period in time, starting with the year 1849 and ending with 2321. Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud provided equally beautiful work through their costume designs – especially for the 1849, 1936, 1973 and 2144 segments. And I cannot say enough for the makeup work that allowed the cast to portray characters at different ages, cultures, genders and even race. I realize there was some controversy over the latter, but I will come to it, later.
Those who did not care for “CLOUD ATLAS” claimed that the screenplay failed to provide any connections between the six stories and the characters. Some believe that “CLOUD ATLAS” is simply about reincarnation, accepting the film’s official 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.”
Perhaps that is the truth. I did not bother trying to guess the movie’s main theme, while I watched it. I believed I would not be successful. Instead, I simply treated all six stories as separate and enjoyed them as they unfolded. In doing so, I managed to find similar themes of truth, inspiration and freedom of tyranny without any heavy-handed narratives. I was also surprised by how the main character of each successive story was inspired somehow (many times unknowingly) by experiences of his or her predecessor. Robert Frobisher read part of a book on the life of Dr. Adam Ewing. Luisa Rey read Frobisher’s letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. And it was the latter who led her to investigate the power plant’s illegal use of nuclear energy. Timothy Cavendish read a unpublished manuscript for a novel based on Luisa’s investigation, which was probably written by her young neighbor. Following her escape, Sonmi-451 watched a movie about Cavendish’s ordeal at the elderly home. And Zachry recalled a statuette of Sonmi-451 and saw an orison (future recording device) featuring a speech from her. By the film’s final scene, I was surprised to find myself in tears. If there is nothing I love more is a movie that can take me by surprise in a positive way. And “CLOUD ATLAS” certainly achieved this.
Earlier, I had pointed out a controversy that emerged about some of the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s casting decisions. Someone noticed in the movie’s trailer that European actors like Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving portrayed Asians – namely Koreans. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) officially criticized the movie’s producers for allowing non-Asians to portray Koreans in the film. They also criticized the movie for allowing cast members of African descent – Halle Berry, Keith David and David Gyasi – portray Pacific Islanders. Of course, they failed to point out that Tom Hanks, Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Bae Doona and Zhou Xun also portrayed Pacific Islanders in the 2321 segment. And it was pointed out that the movie’s two Asian cast members – Bae and Zhou – also portrayed Westerners. I suppose this is a topic that will never be resolved. However, I had assumed that each actor portrayed a series of characters that possessed the same soul . . . and that was the message the filmmakers were trying to point out.
Since the major actors/actresses portrayed multiple characters in six different stories, I decided to point out the performances I really enjoyed. I was impressed by Jim Sturgess’ transformation of the Adam Ewing character from a mild-mannered personality to one who had the courage to defy his father-in-law and become an abolitionist. His hilarious portrayal of the Scottish soccer fan in the 2012 segment had me in stitches. Hugo Weaving portrayed a series of villainous characters in the movie. But the two characters that really impressed me out were his performances as the murderous hit man Bill Smoke in the 1973 segment and Old Georgie, an evil manifestation of the negative aspect of Zachry’s subconscious in the 2321 segment. Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey proved to be one of the film’s more inspirational characters. And I enjoyed how she injected a bit of sly humor in her performance. Doona Bae gave a very memorable performance as the Korean fast-food clone, Sonmi-451. And she was hilarious as the Latina woman who ended up helping Luisa Rey in the 1973 segment. Hugh Grant really impressed me in his portrayal of Denholme Cavendish, Timothy’s vindictive, yet witty brother. James D’Arcy was excellent in both the 1973 segment, in which he portrayed the elderly Rufus Sixsmith and the Korean archivist that interviewed Sonmi-451. Ben Whishaw gave an excellent performance as the English composer Robert Frobisher, who found himself caught in a moral trap. And David Gyasi provided another inspirational performance in his portrayal of Autua, the Moriori slave whose bid for freedom ended up inspiring Dr. Ewing.
If I had to pick the two best performances in the movie, they came from Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent. First of all, Hanks did an excellent job in his portrayals of the Scottish hotel manager that blackmailed Frobisher into giving him the latter’s waistcoat. Hanks’ performance as the Hawaiian tribesman Zachry was poignant. And I found his performance as the British gangster Dermot Higgins both astonishing and hilarious. But his portrayal of the murderous Dr. Henry Goose was probably the best performance in the entire movie. Frankly, he was even more scary than any of Weaving’s array of villains. Jim Broadbent portrayed two characters that really impressed me. One was his portrayal of the venemous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. Broadbent’s transformation of Ayrs from an enthusiatic music lover to a vindictive blackmailer really took me by surprise. But his best performance turned out to be the funniest in the movie – that of the self-indulgent publisher Timothy Cavedish, who found himself a victim of his brother’s vengeful nature.
I realize that “CLOUD ATLAS” proved to be a box office flop. Most people found the movie either too complicated or uneven to enjoy. I honestly thought I would end up sharing these views before I saw the film. I really did. But like I said, I found myself surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I heard rumors that author David Mitchell enjoyed this adaptation of his novel. And I am happy for his sake. Especially since I enjoyed it myself. Lana and Andy Wachowski, along with Tom Tykwer, really outdid themselves.
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