A stunner of an opus that isn’t just admirable but thought-provoking and moving, Cloud Atlas is the Wachowskis’ most personal film to date, a hugely successful examination of identity only occasionally undermined by the duo’s historic predisposition to discuss their ideas rather than explore them visually.
An ensemble cast led by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent, the film follows a variety of characters at different points in their “karmic timeline” (my phrase, not the Wachowskis’) as they make decisions that not only affect those around them but reverberate through the rest of their incarnations.
How effective are Hanks and Berry as their past, present and future selves?
In one scenario, for example, Hanks plays a doctor in 1850 caring for his sick colleague (Sturgess) as they make a dangerous journey across the sea; in another, he’s a scientist in the American 1970s who finds himself strangely drawn to a journalist (Berry) investigating his company’s shady business practices; and in a third he’s a tribesman in a retro-futuristic landscape who partners with a member of a technologically-advanced civilization (Berry again) to recover information about the great man-made disaster that led to the planet’s devastation.
Broadbent plays a greedy composer in one time period and a feckless publisher in another; other than his turn as an ailing doctor, Sturgess plays a Korean soldier who rescues a genetically-engineered “fabricant” (Doona Bae) from extermination after she begins to express humanlike feelings; and Hugo Weaving plays a Nurse Ratched-like nursing home adminstrator, a hired gun for a corporation trying to cover its tracks, and a futuristic executioner.
It remains to be seen how effectively audiences think that the filmmakers transformed their actors into so many different characters, but suffice it to say that the question of identity looms large over all of the stories. What makes us who we are — how we look? Where (and when) we are? What we do? Lana Wachowski’s own journey of self-discovery feels like a palpable influence over every frame of the film, and she and Andy successfully merged that with the tapestry of novelist David Mitchell’s source material to create something that’s at once sweeping and incredibly personal.
It’s hard to say whether the star wattage of actors like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry reinforces or undermines the film’s themes — as good actors as they are, they’re always themselves, so their physical transformations never disguise the fact that, well, they’re them. But the repetition (if not consistency) of their appearances is pointed, and it speaks to the idea that choices we make in one life have repercussions in others — whether they’re rewards, punishments, fulfillments or yearnings.
That said, not all of the characters have a consistent sort of identity throughout the various time periods, and while it legitimizes the idea of free will and choice, it works at cross purposes with the throughlines of some of the characters. In one Hanks plot line, he’s a sensitive hero; in another, a violent criminal. Which is meant to be his core identity? The film never quite answers this, and as a result there doesn’t seem to be a coherent arc to his character’s (characters’?) story.
Further, there’s a truly beautiful narrative woven into the film’s tapestry about two lovers (James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw), but of all of the various plot lines, its outcome and larger purpose is less well-defined. As Robert Frobisher, Whishaw is one of the most interesting and admirable characters in the film — completely confident in his sexuality, assured of his own talents and remarkably insightful about himself and those around him — but his eventual fate seems more like a display of loyalty to the novel than a complement to the rest of the stories.
Structurally, the film is very complex, and its dervishlike introduction of the various characters and time periods will almost certainly confuse viewers at first. But the Wachowskis’ storytelling has never been as dexterous as it is here, and they more successfully than ever merge big ideas with even bigger visual sequences, where in the past their staccato combination of character pontificating and action set pieces has failed to create a consistent dramatic momentum.
Once the Wachowskis have introduced their various worlds, however, the story settles into a comfortable rhythm that builds naturally to a moving and emotional crescendo, and pays off most of the film’s ideas. And even if, say, the prosthetics worn by the white actors fails to convince you that one iteration of them is Asian, the filmmakers still successfully communicate the emotion beneath that make-up, and make you care about both the ideas and the characters themselves.
Ultimately, what feels most impressive is that the movie exists at all — it seems far too challenging to have the money to make it and the support of a studio like Warner Bros. behind it. But the duo’s proven track record at combining lofty concepts and populist thrills has deservedly earned them to goodwill that Warner extended to them here, and it paid off handsomely in one of the most ambitious mainstream movies in recent years.
Will it strike a chord with moviegoers? Who knows. But Cloud Atlas is smart, moving and inspiring, both cinematically and personally — a Brokeback Mountain for the sci-fi set, perhaps. Because even if you’re not quite sure who or what you are, thinking about those questions at all is the first step to answering them. And most amazingly, it says that not only with the story that it tells, but in the very process of telling of it.
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