“From womb to tomb, our lives are not our own.”
Louise’s rating: 5 out of 5 genres.
Louise’s review: This is a big, bold, beautiful picture. Ambitious, experimental, epic, mad, eminently rewatchable and full of interesting ideas and phenomenal talent. I heartily recommend watching it at least once, because I don’t think you’ll have seen anything like it before.
Gladiator‘s tagline was ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity,’ and that is the central theme of Cloud Atlas. The film explores the possible connections between six stories of different genres, set in different time periods, but all pushing characters ‘to the edge,’ and presenting them with a choice of how to respond. Characters’ actions have consequences which affect subsequent stories, and the stories are also somehow within each other like Russian dolls. The characters in each story are played by the same group of actors, suggesting that they are the same souls, encountering each other on multiple occasions. There is also the implication that the central character of each story is always the same soul, reincarnated.
In the first story we meet Adam Ewing as he journeys across the Pacific Ocean in 1851, oblivious to the fact that he is being slowly poisoned by a villainous doctor. His published journal is later read by Robert Frobisher, a talented but cynical young composer who gets a job as scribe to an ageing maestro. Frobisher’s letters to his lover Sixsmith are read forty years later by investigative journalist Luisa Rey, probing into a conspiracy at a nuclear power plant in 1970s San Francisco. The hero of the fourth story is self-satisfied publisher Timothy Cavendish, who finds himself trapped in an old people’s home and terrorized by the ghastly Nurse Noakes. Cavendish’s ‘taking a stand’ inspires Sonmi-451, a fabricant in 22nd-century Korea suffering oppression in a snazzy but dark-hearted dystopia. Sonmi’s beliefs become the central religious text of the far-future Valleysmen, living in post-apocalyptic Hawai’i. We have come full-circle back to the Pacific islands, but will we eventually leave Earth itself?
The six storylines are interwoven to encourage us to make the links between them and draw our attention to the parallels. For example, one character’s voiceover is played over visuals of characters in the other stories. Also, as characters in the later stories have access to the earlier ones, they can reflect on their predecessors (past lives?), their words and their actions. The theme that stood out of me was the evil of exploiting others through literal and figurative slavery and cannibalism. All six stories are also linked by the musical score, which is supposed to be the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ composed by Robert Frobisher.
Now, I get that this might get on some viewers’ nerves. 150 minutes blending period drama, escape comedy, noir/blaxploitation and sci-fi, complete with pidgin English that does need subtitles, and actors cropping up again and again in yet another make-up job… yes, I can see that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Earnest discussion about art, love, transcendence, and the interconnectedness of all things? Unwieldy, it is. Easy to tune in and out of, it is not. Slightly woolly in its all-embracing message, it is. A waste of time, it is not. Either you’re on board with the multiple roles/multiple storylines/multiple genres/multiple eras… thing… or you’re not. But we are the Mutant Reviewers, and this is the home of cult movies, where we welcome the mad, the bemusing, the honourable, the questionable and the ‘that only makes sense if you turn your head and squint,’ and we embrace those filmmakers who try to do something a bit different instead of knocking out another unnecessary reboot, misogynist romcom or Lethal Weapon ripoff. Trust me when I say Cloud Atlas has the potential to live on when other films have been forgotten precisely because it does polarise opinion (or it would polarise opinion, if anyone would actually see it).
Now that I’ve been factual, and fair to the opposition…
Oh, there’s just one more thing I need to say to be fair to the opposition. Some viewers, according to the internet, are concerned that some of the actors were made-up to look more Asian for the story set in 22nd-century Korea. I think that would be a fair criticism if it were just a film set in Korea. ‘Yellowface’ is unacceptable when there aren’t enough decent roles for Asian actors. However, the point of Cloud Atlas is that connections between souls or spirits transcend time, race and gender. Halle Berry plays a Pacific Islander, a Latina, a German Jew and a Korean man. Hugo Weaving plays an American, a Korean, a British woman and a green-skinned devil. Doona Bae played a Korean (which she is), a Latina and a red-haired and frecked American. It’s all part of the experience.
Now I have definitely been factual and fair to the opposition, I’m going to squee about the things I liked. I thought it looked stunning. Each ‘genre’ is well-served by the cinematography, costuming, special effects, and the ‘look’ of it. I thought all performances were good in the context of their story (Hugo Weaving is the Enormous Ham but it makes complete sense for the character he is playing). Any one of the stories would be a satisfying film by themselves. I can understand the waffling on about love, unity and transcendance because, as I said before, all of these characters, within their stories, are pushed to the edge. Adam Ewing is close to death by poisoning, Frobisher fears his all-important art is going to be sabotaged by rumours about his sexuality, Luisa Rey and Sonmi face being ‘silenced’ for what they have discovered about the people in power, Timothy Cavendish is the old sane-man-trapped-in-lunatic-asylum and Zachry has witnessed his family’s murder at the hands of a cannibalistic tribe (led by, of all people, Hugh Grant) and now has daily conversations with the devil.
Rent it, see it, love it.
- The Wachowskis directed the first, fifth and sixth stories, while Tom Tykwer directed the second, third and fourth stories.
- Based on a novel by David Mitchell.
[Repeated line] The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.
Timothy Cavendish: We cross and re-cross our old paths like figure skaters.
Timothy Cavendish: I will not be subjected to criminal abuse.
Haskell Moore: No matter what you do it will never be more than a drop in an ocean.
Adam Ewing: What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?
Robert Frobisher: A half-finished book is, after all, a half-finished love affair.
If you enjoyed this film, try:
- The Matrix
- Cast Away
- Possession (with Aaron Eckhardt and Gwyneth Paltrow)