With Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski. Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. 172 minutes.
CLOUD ATLAS is the year’s most ambitious film, one that will divide critics as well as audiences. You will either be enthralled or bored beyond tears. Given it’s nearly three-hour running time, you’d best be prepared.
It’s essentially six stories, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (now collectively known as “The Wachowski Starship”) and Tom Tykwer, which are intertwined in a number of ways. Three are set in the past, one in the present and two in the future. That’s two more than D.W. Griffith did in 1916 with his epic “Intolerance,” lacking any future tales. The point of the stories, based on the novel by David Mitchell, is to present two seemingly contradictory themes.
First there is the notion that we’re all connected and no one is alone. We are affected by what’s happened in the past and we influence what will happen in the future, often in ways we can’t even imagine. One way this is done by having its lead actors play different roles in the different stories, often in unexpected ways. Halle Berry and Doona Bae turn up in the roles of white women, as does Hugo Weaving. Tom Hanks is a writer of indeterminate ethnicity in one story and Hugh Grant is a post-apocalyptic character named “Cannibal” in another. You’ll want to watch the closing credits to see how the actors were used. Even if you pay close attention, you’ll be surprised.
The stories vary in style and tone. The 1849 story is a historical sea tale in which Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young man traveling across the Pacific on business, is being slowly poisoned by the seemingly benevolent Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks). In a 1936 story that could be a Merchant/Ivory film, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a gay man and aspiring composer, becomes a secretary to the elderly musician Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). The 1973 story plays like “Three Days of the Condor” as an enterprising reporter (Halle Berry) is trying to get a secret report about a nuclear power plant operated by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) while a hired thug (Hugo Weaving) is killing anyone who tries to help.
The present-day story is a British black comedy in which a publisher (Broadbent) finds himself, through a series of mishaps, to be a prisoner in a mental hospital, becoming involved in a breakout. The story shifts to Korea in 2144 where a cloned servant (Doona Bae) is freed and learns the truth about the role of her kind, bringing to mind both “Logan’s Run” and the Wachowskis’ own “The Matrix.” Finally, there’s a post-apocalyptic story set in 2321 where a representative of the surviving civilization (Berry) needs the help of one of the primitives (Hanks) on a remote island to send a message to space in order to save humanity.
The 1849, 2144 and 2321 stories were directed by the Wachowskis, while the 1936, 1973, and 2012 stories were done by Tykwer. That they combine and edit together so smoothly is a credit to the filmmakers. There are numerous transitions where something in one story seamlessly segues into another or is otherwise echoed.
Some of these stories end triumphantly, some end tragically. This leads to the movie’s second theme, which is that however much we are products of the past – and possibly past lives – we are also individuals capable of change and making a difference. Characters in each of the stories go against the prevailing trends to do what they think is the right thing to do, sometimes suffering the consequences for doing so. As we bounce from story to story we see people acting out of bravery, love, loyalty and high ideals, just as we see people acting out of greed, egotism, authoritarianism, and sheer malice.
“Cloud Atlas” is a challenging movie that can make you think or simply leave you sitting back engaged with six stories playing out in different ways. It is much more interesting if you pay attention to the links between stories noting, for example, that the young boy in Halle Berry’s apartment in the 1970’s story has written the manuscript that Jim Broadbent is reading in 2012, or that the Broadbent character is played by Tom Hanks in the movie version watched in 2144 by Doona Bae. One suspects that this is a movie that will reward repeated viewings, and that there are connections and layers of meaning waiting to be discovered.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.