Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012) – Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way: I will always support a movie like this whether I love it or hate it or anywhere in between. What do I mean by “a movie like this?” Well, sometimes there’s a film-maker who creates something that in addition to be very good makes a whole shitload of money for a movie studio. Maybe this film-maker has a run of hits. Then the studio decides “hey, this guy clearly knows what he’s doing. He makes movies that make us a ton of money.” Maybe the movies even get critical acclaim, but that’s not a necessity. The point is the studio figures “let’s just give this guy money to do what he wants to do. We’ve had great luck with this artist so let’s support his artistic vision.” On the plus side, this philosophy can lead to movies like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. On the down side, it can also lead to movies like Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. But, you know what? As much as I didn’t like Sucker Punch, I am glad it was made. I will always support big budgets being given to artists to bring their vision to the screen, even if their vision is somewhat lacking. Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski obviously made a huge impact with the Matrix trilogy (even if the first one is the only one of the three that is pretty universally well-regarded). For their big passion project (though it seems like every project is a passion project with them) was adapting David Mitchell’s “unadaptable” novel Cloud Atlas. For good measure, German auteur Tom Tykwer (director of Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) is the co-director. Now previous “unadaptable” novels like Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly or William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch have been made in great movies by cinematic visionaries like Richard Linklater and David Cronenberg. Does the trio of Tykwer and the Wachowskis have what it takes to bring Cloud Atlas to the screen?

Cloud Atlas weaves six stories only connected tangentially to one another throughout different places and periods of history. In 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a young lawyer conducting some legal business in the South Pacific with a plantation-owning Reverend (Hugh Grant) regarding the slave trade for his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving). On his trip back to San Francisco, he becomes quite gravely ill and falls under the care of Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), who has spent the previous years studying cannibal tribes. In 1936, a young composer named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) to become an apprentice to legendary composer Vyvyan Ayres (Jim Broadbent), while he attempts to compose his magnum opus The Cloud Atlas Sextet. In 1973, Luisa Ray (Halle Berry) is a private detective in San Francisco who receives some documents from a much older Sixsmith accusing his employer (Hugh Grant) at a nuclear power plant of some serious crimes. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is a literary agent whose latest client Dermott Hoggins (Tom Hanks) murders a critic and winds up on the bestseller list. Cavendish soon finds himself at the mercy of Hoggins’s gangster cronies and seeks help from his estranged brother Denholme (Hugh Grant). This proves to be a mistake. In 2144, Somni-451 (Doona Bae) is a “fabricant” (a clone, basically) who works in a fast food restaurant. When her friend Yoona-939 (Zhou Xun) rebels and a mysterious man named Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) comes to save her, Somni finds herself the surprising head of a cultural revolution. In an unspecified post-apocalyptic time, Zachry (Tom Hanks) is a tribal man living in what used to be Hawaii. Meronym (Halle Berry), a representative of one of the last technologically advanced enclaves of humanity, comes to him needing his help exploring a forbidden part of the island.

As you might gather from the above paragraph, everyone in the primary cast (which also includes Keith David, David Gyasi, and Susan Sarandon) plays multiple roles. This mostly works but very notably doesn’t in a couple areas. Hanks is not convincing for a second as Cockney skinhead Hoggins (though the character’s screen time is short). Furthermore almost every instance of cross-racial casting is uncomfortable. Halle Berry as Ayres’s Caucasian wife Jocasta is distracting. There are no Asian men in the Seoul-set 2144 chapter, leaving actors like Sturgess, D’Arcy, and Weaving to don yellow-face with prosthetic makeup to give them Asian eyes. Doona Bae plays a Mexican woman in the 1973 chapter in a somewhat stereotypical way and is not remotely convincing as Ewing’s Caucasian wife in the 1849 chapter. Oddly enough, some of the cross-gendered casting works fine. I didn’t even realize that Ben Whishaw’s character in the 2012 segment was played by a man and while Hugo Weaving in the same chapter is never remotely convincing as a woman, it kind of helps sell his character’s Nurse Ratched-like menace. Overall, I really liked the multi-casting though. Each actor really creates distinct characters (though Weaving and Grant play pretty much exclusively villainous roles). It’s a bold move that while imperfectly executed (as indicated above) really pays off for the movie as a whole.

While the different stories are obviously quite different from one another (and indeed half of them are directed by the Wachowskis and half by Tykwer) there is a thematic unity that really holds the film together. A lot of critics seem to regard Cloud Atlas as an ambitious failure, but I flat-out loved it. An imperfect movie, sure, but it moved me. The music, by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil, is phenomenal (as it should be in a movie where one story revolves around it). The effects are great and at all times I was absorbed in what was going on in all six narratives. The post-apocalyptic narrative does involve a slang-heavy dialect that takes some adjusting too, but that’s hardly a negative. I knew immediately this was a movie that would demand further viewings from me. It will get them the second this flick hits Blu-ray. You should also check it out, and for the love of God PAY to do so. I’m not 100% anti-torrents or whatever (though I suppose I should be) but movies like this NEED to make money. If big budget “idea” movies like this one don’t make a lot of money, the studios will not keep making them. (Indeed this one made &65 million on a $102 million dollar budget.) You can’t complain that Hollywood never takes chances if you skip out on the rare occasions they actually do. Like I said, the critics have not regarded this one all that favorably and I have barely talked to anyone else who has seen it to gauge their opinions, but I really liked this movie. It’s one of my favorites of the year. See it.

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