CLOUD ATLAS. Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw. Directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski. 172 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (Strong violence, sex scene and coarse language).
First, a warning. As the Warner Bros logo comes up, be aware that you are going to have to focus and concentrate for the next 172 minutes. After introducing us to its six story strands, with dates and places, the film becomes easier to follow as the stories interconnect.
But where to begin a review? A brief synopsis would take more space than an ordinary review! This is a film which blends different movie genres, world history from the 19th century into the far future, a shift from Earth to a far planet, and raises so many questions through its storytelling. There are the perennial themes of love, freedom, identity, boundaries and prejudices, conspiracy, revolution, civilisation and the primitive, good and evil, malice and self-sacrifice.
It is not surprising that many audiences have responded well to this quite epic and spectacular version of the Booker Prize-nominated book (2004) by David Mitchell. It is also not surprising that the film has not done so well at the box-office, many finding it too hard, and many dismissing it as pretentious. This is not hard to understand. But, this review will be on the side of Cloud Atlas. The stories can stand on their own, but they are intercut throughout the film, often using similar incidents or visual references from one story to the other.
It is fascinating to watch the different stories and the evocation of their period and the use of the familiar movie conventions that have been used to portray these eras. One story is set in 1849 in the Pacific islands and on board a ship going back to America. It shows the capitalist west’s attempts to exploit the natives, even with the help of the missionaries. But, it is also a story of malice, a greedy doctor, treating an ill American on board the ship home. A key character is an islander who has been flogged by his people but has stowed away on the ship. This story looks like one of those historical dramas.
For the 1936 story, set in Edinburgh and Cambridge, there is an enclosed atmosphere reminiscent of the dramas of those days, with a focus on an ambitious young man, a homosexual, who ingratiates himself with a renowned composer and shares his creativity but is denounced by the composer.
There is a 1973 story that looks like one of those conspiracy movies of the time, like The China Syndrome, where a reporter is investigating an energy company that has nuclear plant plans in the context of the fuel crisis of the period. There are chases on the streets of San Francisco as a hired killer pursues the reporter.
When we get to 2012, there is a lighter touch. A thuggish London writer (Ray Winstone-screen-character-type) is drastic in getting rid of an arrogant critic. But, his books become successful and his publisher capitalises on the notoriety – but it backfires when the thug’s family want plenty of royalties and the publisher’s brother interns him in a home for the elderly. There are some comic consequences.
And into the future, the 22nd century, New Seoul, a city which brings to mind the visuals of the underground city in the Matrix series – which is not surprising because the Wachowskis are the directors. This is a dictatorship with a cyborg generation primed to serve the humans. But, revolution is in the air.
And, then, on a galaxy far, far away, survivors of a cataclysm (The Fall), eke out their existence, plagued by a band of gaudily painted but deadly warriors.
Yes, the synopsis needs quite some space.
One of the features of Cloud Atlas, which contributes to the themes, even of reincarnation and déjà vu, is that the main actors take up to half a dozen different roles. It is only at the final credits that we realise that some of the minor characters were played by the main cast, unrecognisable, sometimes crossing race and gender barriers. This is fascinating in itself, but it also raises questions about good and evil, continuity and discontinuity in the behaviour of people throughout history.
Tom Hanks is the principal actor and shows quite vast diversity in his performances: the fearful warrior in the future, the wheedling doctor in the past, a scientist in 1973, the mercenary hotel keeper in the 1930s, several others but an outstanding impersonation with the thug Brit author in 2012. That is the kind of film Cloud Atlas is.
The rest of the cast obviously relish the invitation to be so different in the one film. Hugh Grant has been off-screen for some time, but is cleverly diverse in his roles, from the nuclear executive in 1973 to the mean brother of the 2012 publisher. So is Jim Broadbent who is the 1930s composer as well as the hapless publisher of the present (and the 19th century ship’s captain). Halle Berry has some good opportunities, better than many films she has been in since winning her Oscar in 2001. But, very striking is Hugo Weaving, who has a lot of roles, ranging from the 1973 assassin to the Nurse Rached manager of the home for the elderly and an especially sinister devil character who torments and tests Tom Hanks in the future. Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and Keith David also have very interesting characters.
So, what is it all about? History, for one. The continuity, the discontinuity, the transitions, even in the 20th century, what is similar, what is different, the wide range of manifestations of good and evil. There is a great deal about freedom, anti-slavery, anti-sexual orientation bigotry, anti-fascist military control, anti-superstition… One character remarks that boundaries are conventions to be crossed. There is a great deal about love, relationships and how necessary they are for any kind of survival.
Obviously, this is a tour-de-force for the two American directors, and Tom Tykwer from Germany. It is visually spectacular with an enormous range of special effects for the different eras (especially for New Seoul). In terms of making actors different in their roles, even disguising them, hair and make-up are admirable.
One of the main difficulties in responding to Cloud Atlas is that it is basically storytelling rather than overt reflection and philosophising. Sometimes we feel we should be ‘thinking through’ what the story means as we watch it, but that takes away from the senses’ and emotional experiences we have. Is it necessary to tease out the intellectual meanings afterwards, or is it better simply to remember the stories, the characters and how we responded as we looked and listened? Something of both?
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out: February 28, 2012.