A film review by Craig J. Koban October 31, 2012

RANK:  #2


2012, R, 172 mins.


Featuring the following actors in multiple roles:

Tom Hanks: Dr. Henry Goose / Hotel Manager / Isaac Sachs / Dermot Hoggins / Cavendish Look-a-Like Actor / Zachry

Halle Berry: Native Woman / Jocasta Ayrs / Luisa Rey / Indian Party Guest / Ovid / Meronym

Hugh Grant:  Rev. Giles Horrox / Hotel Heavy / Lloyd Hooks / Denholme Cavendish / Seer Rhee / Kona Chief


Jim Sturgess: Adam Ewing / Poor Hotel Guest / Megan's Dad / Highlander / Hae-Joo Chang / Adam / Zachry Brother-in-Law

Doona Bae: Tilda / Megan's Mom / Mexican Woman / Sonmi-451 / Sonmi-351 / Sonmi Prostitute

Jim Broadbent: Captain Molyneux / Vyvyan Ayrs / Timothy Cavendish / Korean Musician / Prescient 2

Hugh Weaving: Haskell Moore / Tadeusz Kesselring / Bill Smoke / Nurse Noakes / Boardman Mephi / Old Georgie


Susan Sarandon: Madame Horrox / Older Ursula / Yusouf Suleiman / Abbess


Written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, based on the book by David Mitchell


"All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them."

- Exert from 'On the Beach at Night Alone'

by Walt Whitman

Watching CLOUD ATLAS is like looking at one of those beguiling, yet ethereally beautiful pixelated paintings where a discernable image only becomes visible the more you stare at it and focus your concentration.  

One’s attention must be wholly engaged in this 172-minute cinematic ballad to what many have perceived to be an unfilmable novel by David Mitchell of the same name; many viewers will no doubt be completely befuddled by the film, while some will hastily admonish it without hesitation.  Yet, for patient and literate filmgoers that allow the film’s labyrinthine narrative to slowly creep up on them and form a meaningful whole, CLOUD ATLAS will stir the imagination and touch the soul.  So rarely do I ever say that you will never see a film quite like this in a review...but it abundantly fits here..

CLOUD ATLAS is a work of towering ambition, fearless scope, audacious confidence, and metaphysical compulsion, one that certainly could not have been helmed by any single director, so it was quarterbacked by three: Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski (THE MATRIX trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN), and it’s a collaboration that’s endlessly intrepid, and innovative.  They have teamed together to engage in the near impossible of adapting Mitchell’s own 2004 award winning novel, which requires them to traverse through a wickedly dense narrative structure that rickshaws back and forth – in and out of the past, present, and future (between the years 1849 and 2346) – that, in turn, tells a sextet of stories that involves all of the respective characters sharing cosmic, physical, and spiritual commonalities.  The fact that they manage to create a level of coherent harmony among all of these threads is frankly amazing; it takes some kind of superlative talent and daring to make Mitchell’s work feel legible on screen, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer have done just that. 

Whereas Mitchell’s novel was decidedly more linear minded, the directors here have opted for a more cerebrally challenging method of scrambling and then intertwining all of his various narrative threads into one complete package.  CLOUD ATLAS does not make initial sense very early on, and it will no doubt vex even smart viewers into frustration.  Yet, the Wachowskis and Tykwer take their time to connect all of the film’s enthralling dots and find a way to creative a connective tissue between all of the lives presented.  The six stories take place during six different time periods – the late 19th century, the 1930’s, 1973, 2012, 2144, and the very distant post-apocalyptic future – that feature the film’s cast portraying multiple characters during all of them, oftentimes swapping ethnicities and even gender through the marvels of makeup and (I think) state-of-the-art computer generated tinkering.  The point here is that all of the characters (well, most of them) are reincarnations of the very same soul, symbolizing the universality of the human experience and condition. 



The first story thread takes place on an 19th Century naval vessel and involves the rather unlikely friendship between an American notary (Jim Sturgess) and a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) that mutually help each other survive the hellish trek across the Pacific.  The second thread – arguably the most emotionally touching – involves the 1930’s love affair between a young penniless homosexual musician (Ben Winshaw) and his secret companion (James D’Arcy) and later shows how the former develops a tumultuous work relationship with an old composer (Jim Broadbent).  The third story arc takes place in the gritty political paranoia of the 1970’s and sees a brave reporter (Halle Berry) uncovering a cruel plot by a greedy nuclear power businessman (Hugh Grant, the film’s great casting coup) who seems to want to purposely melt down a reactor for profit. 

The fourth of the sixth segments – the film’s most endearingly comical – involves a British publisher (Broadbent) that is tricked into confining himself in a nursing home that is ruled over by a wicked Nurse Ratchet-type (Hugo Weaving…yup…playing a woman!).  The second last segment – the most visually rich and astounding – takes place in 22nd Century Seoul that reveals how one “frabricant” (a genetically engineered being, created to serve consumers, played exquisitely by Doona Bae) finds a savior in a Korean rebel leader (Sturgess) to free her and allow her to become a symbol of the resistance.  The final – and perhaps the most dramatically impenetrable – story arc takes place well beyond the 22nd Century where primitive beings speaking in their own odd language and form ties with a technologically advanced civilization from the stars.  One tribesman (Hanks) teams up with a galaxy-trekking woman (Berry) to help each other in ways that alters the course of their future existence. 

My lengthy description of CLOUD ATLAS' story does not do it justice or even remotely skim its complicated surface.  Again, one’s full attention needs to be levied at the screen throughout the film’s near-three-hour runtime (which seems almost too brisk and nimble considering how long it is) to fully appreciate the board mosaic of stories and multiple themes that permeate it.  CLOUD ATLAS almost reprimands modern filmgoer complacency for neat, tidy, and easily digestible plotting that goes from A to B and finally to C; it’s so unlike contemporary films for how our emotional buy-in gestates via our dissection of all of the story threads and ability to piece them all together.  Only about a third of the way through does the film’s thematic puzzle pieces begin fit together – the number six is a constant motif (six stories, the Cloud Atlas musical sextet within the story; a character is named Sixsmith; etc.) and the notion of a thirst for freedom and knowledge is also a rallying cry for all of the characters throughout its centuries-spanning plot.  Then there is an odd birthmark that seems to spring up on various characters through time as well. 

The Wachowskis (no strangers to grand and immersive visual effects) and Tykwer create a rich and varied visual tapestry throughout the film (the former filmed the 19th Century tale and the two futuristic ones and the latter did the 1930's, 1970’s and present day stories).  It’s seemingly impossible at times to think that three different people directed this modest budgeted epic ($100 million, largely from independent financiers) because they all find a harmonious visual style that gels together so fluently.  I liked the attention to period detail during the 70’s sequence and stared with awe at the sights of Neo-Seoul of the 22nd Century, a sprawling megatropolis growing over the remains of the flooded out old Seoul that looks like a combination of BLADE RUNNER’s L.A. and the futuristic city vistas from the STAR WARS prequels.  How CLOUD ATLAS cost only $100 million when compared to so many lesser looking/more expensive films is staggering to contemplate. 

The ensemble cast displays the same amount of rich variety and boldness as the film's visual dynamism and storytelling, allowing the great actors to embody a startling assortment of characters (some major, some fleeting) while throwing vanity and caution to the wind.  The manner that Hanks, Sturgess, Berry, Weaving, et al are all allowed a remarkable amount of free reign to cross over racial lines has been criticized for being...racist, which is an absurd criticism, seeing as some of the ethnic actors (Berry and Donna Bae, for example) cross their own races to portray white women respectively; the point here is to ground the film’s touchstone theme of souls reincarnate and how human lives touch others throughout the vastness of time.  It also allows some actors to euphorically move completely out of their comfort zones.  When was the last time you saw Hugh Grant play a post-apocalyptic cannibalistic savage or Hanks playing an f-bomb yelling Irish hooligan with a penchant for nonchalant murder?  How about Hugo Weaving as a futuristic Korean and a woman?  Berry as an elderly Asian man and white Jewish woman?  The makeup here is kind of thankless: at times, you’re not even sure who’s playing whom, which is the intention, I think. 

Some of the individual story threads work better than others.  I found the distant future tribal banter between Hanks and Berry to be so befuddling at times that it makes THE DARK KNIGHT RISES' Bane sound like an elocution instructor, but the oddness of this futuristic slang gives the film another layer of compelling mysteriousness (that, and I’m sure that our modern lingo come off as alien talk to people from 300 years ago).  Two particular threads that moved me the most, the first involving Ben Winshaw’s musician trying to balance his own artistic aims with those of his employer while trying to have a gay relationship at a time when it was social suicide.  The other one - a whole story arc taking place in futuristic Seoul that shows Donna Bae’s engineered creation trying to discover her own identity and purpose for existing - is,  improbably enough, the episode with the most touching humanity entrenched in it. 

Some have described CLOUD ATLAS as the ultimate three-hour mental endurance test and/or mind-screw job.  Unsuspecting cinema patrons entering into this film will leave feeling annoyed, confused, and unnecessary challenged.  But, great art challenges cherished status quos and dares to be daringly original and entirely unique filmgoing experiences that polarize (films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY were despised by many when originally released and are now heralded as masterpieces).  CLOUD ATLAS has flaws, to be sure, but its unlimited thirst to be novel, pioneering, thought provoking and visionary trumps those nitpicky blemishes.  Here’s a sci-fi drama of grand ideas, even grander visuals, and narrative and thematic density that feels like forgotten foreign territory these days.  It’s a film that will undoubtedly stir people to seek it out and see it again; as Lana Wachowski stated in a recent interview, “We wanted to make the kind of film that makes us want to make films, one that had an unabashed scale and scope, and a philosophical investigation of what it means to be human.”  

Name another film 2012 that has achieved just that?

  H O M E