Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Dispersing the Cloud (Atlas)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dispersing the Cloud (Atlas)

by Tony Dayoub

Six distinct but loosely related stories are told during the nearly 3-hour running time of Cloud Atlas, the New Age-ey, science fiction-flavored romance directed by the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). The most compelling gimmick the film offers is its unique casting in which the principle actors in its ensemble play different roles in each of the stories. In this simple way (really only possible in film and theater), Cloud Atlas reinforces an idea explored in the 2004 source novel by David Mitchell, best described by the movie's pivotal character, Sonmi-451:
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.
The repetition of familiar actors influencing successive stories with varying impact is one of the most attractive ideas explored in Cloud Atlas. But it is also one of its most frustrating flaws because you soon find yourself scanning the periphery of every scene to see if you spot the next recurrence of someone changing his/her appearance to—not always successfully—blend in with the demands of the plot fragment at hand. It takes you out of the movie. It is undeniable, however, that Cloud Atlas—at over $100 million, perhaps the most expensive independent picture ever made—is a monumental achievement of some kind. What follows is my attempt to unravel some of the more distracting/confusing elements of the film... to create a liberating mini-guide, if you will. that should allow the viewer to more closely follow this fantasy's more pertinent themes.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
Time and Place:
1849, The South Pacific
The Players: Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), Autua (David Gyasi)
Cameos: Reverend Gilles Horrox (Hugh Grant), Madame Horrox (Susan Sarandon), Kupaka (Keith David), Maori slave (Halle Berry), Captain Molyneux (Jim Broadbent), Cabin Boy (Ben Whishaw), Tilda Moore Ewing (Doona Bae), Haskell Moore (Hugo Weaving)
Directed by: Andy and Lana Wachowski
The Tale: Naive Ewing gets a rude awakening while arranging a slave trade in the South Pacific for his father-in-law, Moore. He reluctantly forms a friendship with a stowaway slave, Autua. But will he survive a worsening affliction taking hold of him on the crossing back to San Francisco?

Sturgess and Gyasi are fine as the odd couple of this piece, but this doesn't feel like anything we haven't seen before. Hanks, however, is revelatory as a malevolent medic filled with greed. This is the first of the yarns to foreground the evils of slavery and a class system, offering the most distinct contrast to later segments in which we see racial and economic lines blurred by the inevitable globalization of our world. The title of this segment refers to the diary which inspires the next segment's protagonist, Robert Frobisher, to get serious about his music.

Letters from Zedelghem
Time and Place:
1936, Scotland
The Players: Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent)
Cameos: Hotel Heavy (Hugh Grant), Jocasta Ayrs (Halle Berry), Tadeusz Kesselring (Hugo Weaving), Hotel Manager (Tom Hanks), Poor Hotel Guest (Jim Sturgess)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer
The Tale: The musically talented and streetwise Frobisher tells his chronicle in the form of missives to Sixsmith, a former lover. Frobisher becomes a protege to the aged composer Ayrs, hoping to use the old man to propel himself to fame and fortune. But who's really manipulating who?

One could look at the symbiotic relationship between Frobisher and Ayrs as another variation of slave and master. But funny enough, their exchanges play second fiddle to that of their supporting characters, at least on an emotional level. This despite the fact that Frobisher composes the titular "Cloud Atlas Sextet" that threads through the film. In this segment, it's the implication of the inequality that resides at the edges of the story which is most fascinating, and I don't just mean in terms of the illicit same-sex relationship between Frobisher and Sixsmith; Ayrs' wife, Jocasta is a Jew who once had an abortive romance with the German Kesselring but is now disgusted by his nationalism and its attendant anti-semitism. Frobisher's letters influence Sixsmith in small ways that don't become clearer until decades later. Through Sixsmith, the next chapter's heroine learns to stand up to the corrupt establishment forces they rail against miles and years away.

Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Time and Place:
1973, San Francisco
The Players: Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks), Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving), Joe Napier (Keith David)
Cameos: Talbot Hotel Manager (Xun Zhou), Record Store Clerk (Ben Whishaw), Lester Rey (David Gyasi), Mexican Woman (Doona Bae), Megan's Dad (Jim Sturgess), Megan's Mom (Doona Bae)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer
The Tale: Rey, a journalist who stands in the long shadow left by her father, is handed the story of a lifetime by Sixsmith, now an aged whistleblower working to expose some of the hazards of a nuclear facility in the Bay Area.

This is the strongest storyline helmed by Tykwer, a dense conspiracy-laden short that apes the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. Berry is superb as Rey, carrying the segment effortlessly. Cloud Atlas also begins to pick up steam overall, since we now see various recurring relationships, characters and themes intersect at this point. One of this part's rare pleasures is the chance to see the burly Keith David get what amounts to the biggest star turn he's had since perhaps They Live, and he knows what to do with it, too. A brief flirtation between the characters played by Berry and Hanks foreshadows bigger things for their descendants in the far future. And this is the first instance in the film in which people of color are the prime movers of the plot and make a lasting impact on their world. In the next segment, Rey's story makes a cameo as a manuscript that the protagonist reads on a train.

The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
Time and Place:
2012, London
The Players: Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving),
Cameos: Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), Indian party guest (Halle Berry), Denholme Cavendish (Hugh Grant), Georgette (Ben Whishaw), Ursula (Susan Sarandon), Nurse James (James D'Arcy), Highlander (Jim Sturgess)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer
The Tale: Hiding from some unsavory debt collectors, publisher Cavendish ends up trapped as a patient in a nursing home, where he must plot a break for freedom.

Comic relief, it may be, but this variation on the English senior citizen comedy (think Waking Ned Devine) is the weakest of all the entries. After a promising start, where a flamboyant Hanks gets a chance to exhibit some loathsome behavior, Broadbent becomes the focus. The film's comparison of the short-sighted bumbling Cavendish's incarceration with the enslavement of other prominent characters in the film is quite a stretch. It's hard to believe such a character would ever have a movie made about him (Cloud Atlas notwithstanding); even harder still that the film, inadvertently or not, will inspire the Fabricant Revolution of the next sequence. Pay attention to some sly foreshadowing in this segment, when Cavendish jokingly invokes the name of a famous Charlton Heston sci-fi flick.

An Orison of Sonmi-451
Time and Place:
2144, Neo Seoul
The Players: Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), Archivist (James D'Arcy)
Cameos: Yoona-939 (Xun Zhou), Seer Rhee (Hugh Grant), Actor (Tom Hanks), Boardman Mephi (Hugo Weaving), Ovid (Halle Berry), Yusouf Suleiman (Susan Sarandon), An-Kor-Apis (Keith David), Korean Musician (Jim Broadbent)
Directed by: Andy and Lana Wachowski
The Tale: The stratification of economic classes is at its worst: the rich have even genetically engineered a servant class, called Fabricants, with any distasteful rebellious inclinations or individuality stomped out of them. That is until an unlikely chain of events and confluence of past influences drive Sonmi-451 to lead a revolution.

Now we're talking. The Wachowskis extrapolate further on a premise that first saw light as a comic book backstory ("Bits and Pieces of Information") for their Matrix franchise, giving us the most explicit telling of a schism between masters and slaves the film ever depicts. You feel that the siblings are finally in their element. Visually inspired by Blade Runner and Japanese anime, this is an exciting chase film in which the Neo-like hero played by Sturgess slowly convinces Sonmi-451 to step up to her destiny. Many of the films themes are crystallized in her character, the linchpin of the entire film which was originally supposed to be played by the actress who first brought the Cloud Atlas property to the Wachowskis, Natalie Portman (V for Vendetta). No matter. Doona Bae is inescapably magnetic in the role. Her performance transcends any of the movie's limitations to become something that in a more mainstream film would be considered awards-worthy. As it is, it gives off the whiff of a star-making turn. That's why it's not inconceivable that her Sonmi will be worshipped as a deity in the film's final chapter.

Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After
Time and Place:
After the Fall, 2321, Hawaii
The Players: Zachry (Tom Hanks), Meronym (Halle Berry), Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving)
Cameos: Adam (Jim Sturgess), Kona Chief (Hugh Grant), Rose (Xun Zhou), Abbess (Susan Sarandon), Tribesman (Ben Whishaw), Duophysite (David Gyasi), Prescient (Keith David), Prescient 2 (Jim Broadbent)
Directed by: Andy and Lana Wachowski
The Tale: Meronym, one of the advanced humans known as Prescients, enlists Zachry, an earthier, tribal goat-herder to guide her to the top of Mauna Kea while they try to avoid the evil Kona marauders.

In a clever role reversal, it is the more ethnic looking actors that play the advanced race, while the fairly Anglo-looking cast play the Pidgin English-speaking tribal society. This coda makes the point that only a true melding of all races and classes can allow humanity to overcome its earthly constraints for the heavens. Maybe a tad less exciting than the previous chapter, this "Mad Max Goes to Hawaii" still stands out because of the unlikely chemistry between Berry and Hanks. Along with Bae, Berry and Hanks form the Holy Trinity that gives Cloud Atlas its soul.

Cloud Atlas's chapters each build on their antecedent which perhaps led the filmmakers to mix it up and crosscut between them to minimize the unevenness. What it really does, unfortunately, is spread the unevenness around, something novelist Mitchell wisely avoided through the book's peculiar nesting structure. (Each story is told to its midpoint, before the character in the next story interrupts to tell theirs, until the last one is told in its entirety. At the book's midpoint, Mitchell descends back through the previous stories until they each reach their conclusion.) At its worst, Cloud Atlas is reminiscent of the elaborately interwoven stories found in a movie like 2004's Crash, where intersecting points become more frequent and potent as the film builds to some sort of thematic crescendo. At best, Cloud Atlas is no different than many other cinematic portmanteaus, fitfully satisfying throughout with a few stirring segments that stand out significantly more than others. Some are thinner than others, predominantly those directed by Tykwer. Others draw you in and demand more time than they've been allotted. Multiple viewings may yield more and longer lasting rewards once you start finding your way through the fog. But for those of us who only see a film once, Cloud Atlas is, at least, half of a great movie.


Jason Bellamy said...

"The film's comparison of the short-sighted bumbling Cavendish's incarceration with the enslavement of other prominent characters in the film is quite a stretch."

I cited the 2012 chapter as perhaps the strongest in the film (albeit with the caveat that it's also the most expendable) simply because its so consistent within its own madcap space. But the problematic comparison you cited occurred to me later when I was leaving a comment at Film Doc's site: indeed, if slavery is being compared to the retirement home confinement ... that's not a flattering similarity.

You found much more to like than I did. So did Film Doc. Coincidentally, or maybe not, both of you liked the Sonmi-451 chapter most (which I found quickly redundant and dull) and both of you have read the source novel. The movie is full of spiritual philosophizing, but I was never convinced it was anything more than talk.

Tony Dayoub said...

Actually, Jason, in the interest of full disclosure I just want to clarify that what I know about the novel is only what I have read ABOUT it.

Anonymous said...

I see comments about Cloud Atlas being hailed as the most expensive indie film ever around fairly often, but Phanom Menace passes it by $13 million, and Terminator: Salvation passes it by $98 million.