Cloud Atlas - A Genre-breaking, Mind-Blowing, Ambitious Masterpiece

                            "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future."
                           — Sonmi (Cloud Atlas)

                        Every human being in this world have roots in the past and branches reaching for the future.We are connected with our ancestors or with other peoples in many ways. Separation is a kind of deception. After death, we somehow pass into another realm. What remains here at last is our stories. The stories bear witness to who we are and what we have experienced. When we share the tales, they flourishes and joins with others. The stories we tell takes care of us in some ways. In this desperate modern world, a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. So, we need to put a story in other people's memory and that is how the they will care of themselves and others.

                         David Mitchell’s celebrated 2004 unfilmable novel, "Cloud Atlas" is one of those stories -- a multilayered narrative, with six stories -- that spans five centuries, intersecting various themes like freedom, love, truth in an ever-changing, ever-hostile world. One category of viewers will label this movie as 'an unmitigated disaster', or 'a over-long mess of crossing story-lines' or 'a bloated movie with kooky characters.' Other viewers will pronounce 'Cloud Atlas' as 'intense' , 'masterpiece' or 'a wildly ambitious film.'

                        I belong to the later category. I see this movie as an unparalleled achievement, an rhapsodic overlapping of stories and cultures that builds to a cinematic intensity like no other. Yeah, there is a emotional disconnect with the material, but the powerful and amazing visuals makes up for it. Another important thing: if you want to decode the thin strands that connect each stories, you better do it in the second viewing. The first time embark upon its visual style. 

         Cloud Atlas encloses six different story-lines and datelines. The first tale in 1849 is of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a San Francisco notary. He makes a Pacific Ocean crossing with a shipment of gold and the story relates an unlikely friendship that develops between Adam and a slave (David Gyasi). The second story -- occurs in Belgium, 1936 -- is about a young musician, Ben Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who leaves behind his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) to go on a quest for fortune and fame. In his quest, he joins the aging composer (Jim Broadbent) -- turns out to have some dirty tricks of his own up his sleeve. 

               The third tale set in based upon a conspiracy, which focuses on journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry). She is writing a article about possible corruption and malfeasance at a nuclear power plant. Rufus Sixsmith, an aging physicist (Frobisher's lover) is willing to help Luisa, but danger lurks in the form of a ruthless hit man (Hugo Weaving). The fourth story, set in 2012 England -- with a dose of comedy -- is about a publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), with money troubles. He goes to his brother (Hugh Grant) for a loan. But his brother takes a revenge on Timothy for his past sins by committing him to a nursing home that is actually like a prison. 

                The fifth tale is set in 2144, Seoul, is about Sonmi (Doona Bae), an independent fabricant (cloned servant). She recalls her story, on how she was saved from death by a freedom fighter (Jim Sturgess) and their battles against the military forces. The sixth tale, set in 2346 -- post-apocalyptic Hawaii -- is about Zachry (Tom Hanks), a simple goat-herder, who has survived a planetary catastrophe and lives in a rural community. They worship a goddess named Sonmi. When Zachary befriends a woman (Halle Berry) who belongs to a technologically advanced culture, the future of both their peoples change. 

                 Wachowski's (Andy and Lana) earlier films like "Matrix trilogy", "V for Vendetta" hook viewers from the opening scene, whereas "Cloud Atlas" functions more like a symphony, laying out snatches of all six separate strands and gradually building toward grand movements. The first tale and the two future-set segments are directed by Wachowski's, while Tom Tykwer manages the other three episodes. They beguile us with various tales commendably, while stringing them together with a series of interconnected themes, most of which revolve around personal responsibility for one’s life and future. Wachowski's are really unafraid to challenge us with unexpected detours and gadgets, such as the dense jargon-speak used in the post-apocalyptic future. The triplets didn't shy away from big ideas about interconnected lives and reborn souls. You will find certain character shifts as you’d find in a Dickens or Dostoevsky novel.

                  Cloud Atlas, photographed by Frank Griebe and John Toll, has the most powerful visuals. It has several eye-popping scenes, especially during the 22nd century story, where comparisons to Blade Runner and the Star Wars prequels will be made, but the effects work is no less effective. Philosophically, the movie depicts a universe that is ever flowing and infinite, one in which it’s really impossible to clearly distinguish the past, the present and the distant future. Thematically, the movie passed boundaries of location and time, gender and race and tells a tale that implies the nature of humanity is beyond all those limits.

                     "Cloud Atlas" is blessed with A-list of actors: Hanks, Halle Berry, Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Sturgess, Ben Winshaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. The most fun part in watching each story is watching the same actors appearing as different characters of sometimes different races. Hanks plays heroic in some segments, and remains devilish in other tales. Hanks and Berry are destined for love — the couple who get together at the end of the picture — though in a couple of the stories they make no more than a nodding acquaintance. Broadbent fully reinvents himself as a briny sea captain, a world-famous composer and has great fun as a man trapped in a retirement home. He also appears in a couple other bit roles so cleverly disguised by makeup, where viewers might not recognize him on first viewing.

                     Sometimes the actors don't necessarily play their own gender, like Hugo Weaving, who makes up a scary female nurse at that retirement home. Weaving appears in all six stories in full villain mode. The most emotional character in the movie is the non-human Sonmi-451, played by Korean actress Doona Bae. The make-ups are great for all the actors, but no amount of real or digital makeup can make Caucasians convincingly look Asian, and vice-versa). 

                  The grandness of "Cloud Atlas" demands a kind of awe from viewers, and even when it doesn’t exactly work for you, it still exerts a compelling sense of commitment to both the wonders of storytelling and the idea of the interconnectedness of lives across time and space. I haven't read Mitchell's novel, but it is said that, in the novel, readers must draw their own connections between the tales, with only the recurring motive of a birthmark to suggest the continuity of a single soul across time. However, the movie makes the congruities clearer, as Adam Ewing's Pacific journal is read by Frobischer and the journalist, becomes consumed with the letters the young English musician wrote to his lover. 

                      The literal minded people will point out dozens of flaws in this movie, but looking for plot-holes and meaning or a sense of cosmic convergence in may only take the viewer down the path to dissatisfaction and frustration. Take it as a transcendent experience, where each story settles down and achieves the almost magical feat of pulling together most of the threads it so vigorously tangles at the outset. In the end, the film  leaves us with multiple resolutions but one moist thought, which is resonated by Adam Ewing : “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” 

                    "Cloud Atlas" is energizing, exciting, coherent, ambitious and it is a movie as big as our world itself. 


Cloud Atlas - IMDb


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Wow... an amazing write up, one befitting the movie's brilliance. I only watched it recently and was spellbound by the movie's concept. It indeed is a genre-breaking masterpiece that serves as a harbinger to the cinema of the future...

provoqd said...

Hi Arun,

Seems like I missed out on a good movie. Gotta watch this one. Thanks for the review. ;)


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Arun Kumar said...

@Murtaza Ali, Thanks for the comment. Looking out for your review on "Cloud Atlas"

@Jay Singh, Thanks for the comment. Don't miss this movie, one of the top five from Hollywood, this year.