‘Cloud Atlas’ Maps Out What It Can

Cloud Atlas -- Dir. Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski (Warner Bros. Pictures) -- 3.5 Stars

Let’s talk about Going For It. If you looked up the definition of that phrase in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of “Cloud Atlas,” the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer adaptation of David Mitchell’s celebrated novel. Interweaving six disparate narrative arcs over the course of nearly three hours, it’s impossible to deny that “Cloud Atlas” just straight-up Goes For It. This, obviously, does not give the film’s substantial flaws a free pass, but holistically “Cloud Atlas” achieves striking novelty.

Here are some things that “Cloud Atlas” is about: a doctor sailing the Pacific in 1849, a composer and his amanuensis in 1936, a reporter investigating a nuclear plant in 1973 San Francisco, a book publisher trapped in a nursing home in 2012, a genetically-engineered clone who rebels against her creators in a 2144 version of Seoul dominated by consumerism, and a post-apocalyptic era in which a goat herder climbs a mountain. Simple, right? As the film cuts between all six storylines at a frenetic pace, it’s probably confusing but never boring, and above all, the shortest three-hour movie you’ll ever see.

Common threads run through each of the stories—grandiose themes about freedom and courage and identity. Sometimes, more concrete details carry over, like when, in 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) reads letters written by the composer portrayed in 1936, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw). In one sequence, clips of a stowaway slave demonstrating his sailing prowess by climbing up the mast, are interspersed with those of a clone and her lover walking precariously across a tiny metal bridge to escape. Elsewhere, a train appears twice, running along the same stretch of track: once in 1936 and again in 2012. The themes are reflected and refracted across time and space, underscoring the film’s central topic of interconnectivity.

One of the showcased filmmaking techniques in “Cloud Atlas” is that the principal cast all play multiple roles in order to communicate the idea of transmigrating souls. While much has been made of whether the whiteface and yellowface make-up gimmicks are appropriate, it is more important to note that it forces the audience to acknowledge the actor behind the character. It’s also the perfect thing for a culture that lives for easter eggs and repeat viewings. This trick may be cheap, but it’s also fun. Excluding this misstep, the cast is adequate, if not especially compelling. Most effective are Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish, a bumbling geezer imprisoned in a nursing home against his will; Vivian Ayrs as an aging, brilliant composer; and Hugo Weaving, who plays the villain in every story. Among Weaving’s cold, uncaring characters are a ruthless hitman, a Nurse-Ratchet knockoff weaving in drag, and a manifestation of the Devil named Old Georgie.

“Cloud Atlas” is a film about relativity, since none of the storylines are really effective on their own. Each is a genre piece. 1849 is a sailing piece, 1936 is a quiet drama and a battle between egos, 1973 is a pulp mystery, 2012 is a comedy of errors, 2144 is a sci-fi action film, and the post-apocalypse tale is a story of survival in a harsh, dying world. Even when they share actions, their differences are accented. Cavendish’s escape from the nursing home is intercut with the fabricant Sonmi~451’s escape from the government in 2144. The former is a slaptick comedy, while the latter is dark and foreboding. Comedy equals tragedy plus time. Or minus time. Or something.

The sailing story as well as the two that take place in the future were filmed by the Wachowskis, and it shows. They are heavy on action and set dressing, only settling down for conversation when someone wants to make an extravagant statement or gesture. Tykwer’s middle section fares better, allowing characters to breath a little bit more. But nowhere is truncation of the six storylines clearer than the book’s complicated boardroom espionage of the 1973 storyline that is inelegantly crammed into a handful of expository dialogue from Keith David.

Because of time constraints, none of the stories feel fully realized, none of the characters are fully developed, and all of the arcs feel compressed. But as the film whips from there and back or when the action pauses to get sappy with lines like “All boundaries are waiting to be transcended. My life extends far beyond the limitation of me,” and Tykwer’s score begins to peak and a car plummets off a bridge while a hover bike speeds through traffic, it feels like the film is doing something important. Even if, upon reflection, it’s all just a grandiose, shallow statement.

It’s in this sense that “Cloud Atlas” excels. It is, at best, an intellectually feel-good movie. Yet the act of watching the film—of putting the pieces together, of finding common threads and repeated shots and well-hidden actors, of hearing Tom Hanks talk about life and death and fate—is an entrancing viewing experience. That intangible feeling watching a great film is there, even if that great film is unfortunately absent.

—Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at bfeldman@college.harvard.edu

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