It’s difficult to write this review of Cloud Atlas. You see, Hollywood has already written it off as a flop, which makes me feel like I’m about to eulogize a wonderful person not enough people got to know before he died.
Based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix movies), as well as by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) the movie is one of the best book adaptations I’ve ever seen. At the same time it’s a stunning cinematic achievement. That’s a pretty rare combination.
There is not one story to Cloud Atlas, but six, each set in a different time and place: a ship voyage across the Pacific in 1849, a Scottish mansion in 1936, a West Coast American city in 1973, London in 2012, a corporatist paradise called Neo Seoul in 2144, and a post-apocalyptic version of Hawaii in 2366. (The Wachowski’s directed the 1849 section and the two futuristic sections. Tykwer directed the 1936, 1973 and 2012 sections.)
Yet there is really one story to Cloud Atlas, as each mini story turns out to be about the same soul (identified by a comet-shaped birthmark) living a different life in each time period. This marked character is sometimes male, sometimes female.
The first story thread is about a lawyer who has traveled to the South Pacific in 1849 to make a business deal for his father-in-law (we find out the commodity is slaves) and becomes ill. He also unwillingly becomes the protector of a black man escaping slavery by stowing away on the ship.
The second is about a gay ne’er-do-well musician who insinuates himself into the life of a famous composer.
The third is about a reporter investigating allegations that a nuclear power plant has serious defects.
The fourth is about a book publisher who is running away from thugs and finds himself trying to escape an old-age home.
The fifth follows a “fabricant”—a clone—who works as a virtual slave in a restaurant and becomes a revolutionary.
The sixth is about a goat herder who helps a “Prescient” (one of the few people left on Earth who uses science and modern technology) find a way to save her people.
You may already have picked up on one of the major themes just from this description: slavery and the pursuit of freedom. The story also asks questions such as: do we ever become any less savage as we become more civilized? Do the actions of one person truly make a difference?
In each life, the main character evolves and devolves, going from one who dedicates himself to justice, to an opportunist, to a seeker of truth, to a selfish old coot, to a political symbol, to a coward who may or may not achieve redemption.
Each main character learns of the previous time-line’s character through some means–a diary, letters and a musical composition, a mystery novel, a movie, testimony given to an archivist. The power of storytelling itself becomes a theme.
This movie is not a dry, dull polemic on these thematic elements, however. This is a very human story, with characters who are not easy to forget. Each story thread is entertaining in its own way–by turns suspenseful, tragic, thrilling, funny, mind-blowing and terrifying.
One of the major ways that the movie differentiates from the book is the structure. In the book, the stories are told in order until the halfway point up to the last one—which is told all the way through—and then the book works backward and finishes each story, ending with the first one.
The movie moves from story to story, telling each one in a linear fashion (though not necessarily moving in the chronological order of the different stories), which I think works far better for a movie.
All the actors play multiple roles, a choice that has been criticized as being too distracting (I didn’t find it so) and also controversial because the actors sometimes play characters of different races. Part of the fun of the movie is trying to catch who’s playing which character. If you wait a while after the credits start rolling, they show which parts the major actors all played–and you’ll probably be surprised by at least one or two.
The actors are all fantastic. The veterans–Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant–of course are wonderful. It is a joy to watch someone like Grant–who’s been typecast for a couple of decades as a stuttering romantic hero– play a wide range of outside-of-the-box characters, including a rather terrifying post-apocalyptic cannibal.
But it’s the young actors who are a revelation. Doona Bae, who plays Somni, the frabricant slave-waitress in the Neo Seoul section, is a remarkable actress, the kind who can say more with just her eyes than with a thousand words. Jim Sturgess, who plays the lawyer in the 1849 section and the man who politicizes Somni in the Neo Seoul section (he also has a brief funny bit in the 2012 section) brings a quiet dignity to his roles.
Ben Whishaw, who plays the gay composer in 1936, reveals the pain and vulnerability underneath a character who is more used than a user. James D’Arcy, who plays his lover, unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of screen time (if any section gets short shrift, it’s this one, as a whole sub-plot from the book was excised) but he is also wonderful, in both the 1936 story, and as the same character in the 1973 story.
The one thing that is problematic (I suspect critics who say the movie devolves into a “mess” are speaking of this part) is the post-apocalyptic section. First of all, the characters speak a kind of pig-din English which can be a little difficult to follow. I found this to be so when I read the book, too. The other thing that is a over-the-top is a character (played by Hugo Weaving) called “Old Georgie,” a devil figure who torments Tom Hanks’ character.
My one criticism of the movie is I wished they had pulled back from that a bit and made this section of the story slightly more accessible. But this is a minor quibble.
Another change is they give some of the characters a happier outcome than they got in the book. They also romanticize Somni’s relationship with Hae-Joo, the man who helps her escape. In the book, there’s a downright cynical aspect to the relationship.
These changes are minor and forgivable. In most respects, the movie stays very true to the intent of the book, and that’s a rare thing indeed.
One of the characters is told he can’t change things because he is but one drop in a limitless ocean.
He replies, “What is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
I hope a multitude of drops go to see Cloud Atlas before it’s hustled out of theaters.