How do you review a film like Cloud Atlas? With three directors, six stories, and an ensemble cast of actors who play multiple roles, this is a supremely ambitious sci-fi drama film unlike any I have ever seen.
It is like six separate, yet poetically connected, orchestras, cleverly edited to play as one piece of music.
Each tale has a beginning, middle and an end, with all six stories gradually raising the tempo in unison to a feverish pitch, where eventually each story’s climactic end follows the other, generating a series of powerful emotions that are delivered with a bravado that is only a bit short on subtlety.
The film has a highly spiritual message about love and forgiveness, about selflessness and friendship, and above all, about karma.
Cloud Atlas believably demonstrates the snowball effect of a small positive action which, if given the right circumstance and direction, can build into something powerful enough to tackle oppressive regimes.
Three of the middle stories are directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), while the first and the final two are helmed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix).
Cloud Atlas begins somewhat confusingly, as it tries to establish characters from all six stories very quickly.
Set in 1849, the first story is about Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an American lawyer from San Francisco who, on a ship voyage, aids a stowaway slave.
But he is slowly poisoned by an evil doctor, played by Tom Hanks, who is looking to steal Adam’s valuables.
The second story, set in the United Kingdom in 1936, is emotionally the deepest.
It is about the tormented Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a hugely talented musical composer who is victimised because of his bisexuality and forced to leave his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
Robert is in the process of composing the “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, a masterpiece that finds appreciation in the future.
The third piece takes place in California during 1973, where investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) meets the nuclear scientist Rufus Sixsmith (Tom Hanks).
The fourth story is set in the United Kingdom in 2012, and centres around Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a sixty-five-year-old publisher who runs into trouble with extortionists.
This piece is the most amusing and endearing, although I couldn’t figure out the connection with the rest. Perhaps there wasn’t one.
Aesthetically, narrative-wise, and in terms of action, the fifth story is the slickest and has the Wachowski sci-fi signature all over it.
It stars Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona), a genetically created clone who is little more than a slave, until a rebel leader named Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) rescues her.
The story is set in Korea during 2144, and has a visual style straight out of Japanese animation.
The final story is set in post-apocalyptic 2321, and is the film’s weakest in terms of narrative.
The two main characters are Zachry (Tom Hanks), a primitive tribesman, and Meronym (Halle Berry), a member of an advanced civilisation left behind by colonists who deserted the planet.
Meronym is in search of Cloud Atlas, a communication station that will enable her to send a help signal. But Zachry’s people refuse to help because of tribal superstitions.
Oddly enough, Zachry constantly talks to an imaginary green demonic creature (Hugo Weaving), who looks hilariously silly and is a misfit in the film.
The first five stories of Cloud Atlas are good enough to be full- length feature films on their own.
Yet Cloud Atlas has its flaws. Aside from the mediocre final story, the largest fault lies in the occasional uneven acting, where even veteran actors Tom Hanks and Halle Berry aren’t always up to the lofty challenges of their roles.
They are, however, assisted by some outstanding makeup, which leaves many of the actors unrecognisable at first glance.
Cloud Atlas reaches for the sky in terms of filmmaking. Although it doesn’t always accomplish its lofty goals, the fact that it tries so heartily is something to be admired, and makes it an endeavor worth watching.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 18th, 2012.
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