Title: Cloud Atlas
Directed By: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, David Gyasi
Usually when I catch a movie, I’m busy scribbling down notes, some of which pertain to the film’s plot, just so I’ve got the facts straight when writing the review. However, in the case of “Cloud Atlas,” not only did I want to save my hand all that stress, but thought it’d be interesting to see what stuck after the 164-minute multiple storyline epic without writing a single note or looking at the press notes. No book, no notes, no Googling. This is what I took from “Cloud Atlas.”
We’ve got quite a few characters and storylines in play here. There’s Tom Hanks’ Zachary, a man living in a village, fighting off a vicious enemy tribe while assisting Halle Berry’s space-age character in her quest to send a call for help to her home planet. In the 1800s, one of Jim Sturgess’ characters befriends an escaped slave while sailing home to his wife. In the early 1900s, Ben Whishaw’s Frobisher goes to work for a famous composer where he gets the inspiration to pen the Cloud Atlas Sextet. In the 1970s, Berry is a journalist who catches wind of a scandal and is chased by a corporation assassin trying to stop her from exposing the story. In the present we get Timothy Cavendish, a man who’s tricked into signing himself into an old age home by his brother. Finally, well into the future, we meet Sonmi, one of many identical robot-like humans who are made to staff a fast food restaurant. They’re designed to sleep in their boxes, wake and go to work, but one day, Sonmi can’t help, but to recognize that she’s got hopes, dreams and feelings.
I can’t believe it, but I think I actually managed to account for every “Cloud Atlas” scenario. Yes, they’re merely simplistic descriptions of the stories, but when you’ve got a total of six narratives within a single film that don’t connect on a literal level and are all playing out simultaneously, it’s a wonder how someone can keep track of them all after a single viewing. And perhaps that goes to show that writer-directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski did achieve a degree of success with their unusual methods.
However, just about every achievement in “Cloud Atlas” comes with a downside. In the case of the story format, yes, it’s incredible that each scenario makes an impact, but it also begs the question, would they have been more memorable told in full, individually? And the answer is a big, fat yes. The directing trio absolutely nails the transitions, finding astoundingly smooth ways to transport the audience from one time period to the next, but because the stories aren’t connected on a tangible level, it’s impossible to appreciate the film as a whole. Yes, characters say that we’re all connected and all that nonsense, but “Cloud Atlas” never makes you believe it.
The film does stir some emotion, but because we’re constantly being whipped from narrative to narrative, the feelings are fleeting. At a point, Cavendish and his old age home buddies will make you want to cheer and one of Hanks’ characters pulls something that’ll make your jaw drop, but the moments come and go so quickly, they’re easily forgotten. They propel their mini narrative forward, but nothing happens on the grander scale and that, in turn, makes “Cloud Atlas” feel much more like a haphazard montage.
The film finds itself in similar trouble on the visual front. The makeup in this movie is absolutely incredible, but once you catch on, it becomes more of a game of spot the actor than appreciating the work within the story. For example, Sturgess is almost entirely unrecognizable as Sonmi’s savior, but once you figure out that it’s him, the prosthetic work starts to look like a mask much more so than a real person. Similarly, it’s funny seeing Hugo Weaving dressed up as the rough and tough Nurse Noakes, but it’s nothing more than a novelty.
Set design is generally spot on. In fact, it helps ground every segment. We’ve got an assortment of stories with all sorts of crazy things happening and actors running around with different faces on, but the landscapes are always consistent. The environments look like the 1800s and the 1970s and in the case of settings that might require a little suspense of belief, like the wooded village with a futuristic spaceship sitting in the water nearby, the directors put extra care into introducing the visual, doing so in a way that doesn’t make a grand statement about the element that doesn’t belong, rather makes the landscape the norm.
“Cloud Atlas” is certainly an achievement on a number of levels, just not as a whole. The makeup is unforgettable, the visuals are downright breathtaking, every actor shows off incredible range and honesty, but when the biggest takeaway from a 164-minute movie is the tacky montage revealing who played who, it’s tough not to label the work an exhausting experimental gimmick.