Writer / Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Susan Sarandon
It’s very rare that you watch a completely original film that defies categorizing, but Cloud Atlas does just that. The movie is based on a book of the same name and was directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. The story, as it is, takes place across many different time periods following the paths of people who have a distinct birth mark: a falling star. Chronologically we go from the early 1800’s on a ship crossing the Pacific, to the 193o’s at an English estate, to the 1970’s in San Francisco, to Present day England, to a near-future Megapolis New Seoul, and finally a post-apocalyptic primitive village. In the film we continually jump from era to era and back again.
Cloud Atlas commands your immediate attention. It opens in the post-apocalyptic future with an old Tom Hanks telling a story. But though Hanks is speaking English, it is truncated and in partial metaphor–“be honest with me” becomes “on true true”. In other words, you don’t exactly follow everything he is saying. Over the course of the next ten minutes we jump on a whirlwind journey from era to era meeting all the main characters. It is important to note that all the lead characters play multiple roles across the film and each appear in all the stories–sometimes as major and sometimes as minor characters.
The overall point of the film is to show how we keep coming back to relive the same story over and over again. But more importantly, hopefully we learn to make the right decisions as time goes by. From that point-of-view, the nominal protagonists are Tom Hanks and James Broadbent. Of all the characters, they have the most complete arc–who they are at the end of the film is not the same person as in the beginning. In the case of Tom Hanks, this is symbolized by a sapphire button that constantly comes into the life of all his characters. Along the same lines, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving are nominally the antagonists–never-changing and always evil. The most sympathetic characters are Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) and Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae). Though each actor also has multiple roles, their portrayal of those specific characters are so engaging and eventually heartbreaking that their other performances pale in comparison.
With so many actors playing so many roles, it is inevitable that some succeed and others don’t. Halle Berry always seems to be Halle Berry. Hugo Weaving seems to be delivering a slightly different version of Agent Smith from the Matrix films for each of his roles–with the exception of his character in the post-apocalyptic future. Jim Sturgess fares better and could possibly have an action/adventure movie or two in him. But the revelations are Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, and James D’Arcy. Though you always recognize Tom Hanks, each of his characters are unique. Hugh Grant was virtually unrecognizable in each of his roles with the exception of his character in the 1970’s. As for James D’Arcy, he gave some of the best and nuanced performances in the entire film.
Visually, the film is spectacular. Each time and place are clearly realized. The Wachowski siblings and Tykwer are experts at putting every bit of their budget on-screen–the movie looks more expensive that what it is. As for the challenge of having three directors for one film? It was ingeniously handled. The Wachowki’s directed certain time periods while Tykwer the others.
The make-up was also very well handled. At the end of the film during the credits you are showed each actor and all the roles they played, and are surprised by the ones you missed. Though there was the occasional awkward looking character, you bought each actor in each role.
Cloud Atlas was also deftly edited. Each story had a beginning middle and end, and all were edited together so the overall film also had a beginning middle and end.
But what Cloud Atlas lacks is a connection between the audience and the stories. In giving a voice to all the characters and all their stories, not enough time is given to each to allow the audience to care.
Grade = B-