(2012) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee, Raevan Lee Hanan, Alistair Petrie. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Some movies are easily described, tackle relatively simplistic storylines and are therefore reviewed rather easily. Some have epic ambitions, attempt to tackle much more complex stories and modes of storytelling and give critics fits trying to describe them.
Cloud Atlas is such a film. Based on a much-admired novel by David Mitchell, the movie was taken on by the Wachowskis (auteurs of the Matrix trilogy) who first got their attentions captured by it when Natalie Portman gave a copy to them on the set of V for Vendetta. They decided to turn it into a movie shortly thereafter and brought in close friend Tykwer (best known for Run, Lola, Run) to help them with the writing and directing.
And it is a magnificent canvas. Six stories run concurrently across six different eras with actors playing multiple roles (and often multiple genders). In 1849, a young lawyer named Adam Ewing (Sturgess) returning home from the Pacific Islands to his home in New England after negotiating a slaving contract helps a stowaway slave (Gyasi). In 1936, a young man who dreams of composing (Whishaw) becomes an assistant to a fading composer with the delightful name of Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) and writes a series of love letters to his lover (D’Arcy) at Cambridge while composing a piece of music that will go largely unheard but will have a major effect on other people as time goes by.
In 1973 Luisa Rey (Berry), an investigative reporter in the mold of her father (Gyasi again) is put onto the trail of a defective nuclear power plant by a physicist – the same man who the young composer was writing in 1936 – and goes after Lloyd Hooks (Grant), who runs the plant with what might not be altruistic motives. She will be helped by a physicist (Hanks) and a security chief (David) while stalked by a deadly killer named Bill Smoke (Weaving).
Meanwhile, in 2012 a dishonest publisher (Broadbent) finds himself with a hit book on his hands after it’s criminal author (Hanks again) throws a smarmy critic (Petrie) off a roof but is forced to seek help when the author demands more of a cut. He reluctantly turns to his brother (Grant) who fools him into committing himself in a retirement home that is something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest complete with its own version of Nurse Ratched (in this case, Weaving) and with a few fellow elderly inmates concocts a plan of escape.
In 2144 in the city of Neo Seoul, an artificial human being named Sonmi-241 (Bae) finds her life as a restaurant waitress turned upside down when a revolutionary (Sturgess) shows her an entirely new world as he teaches her philosophy and history and she soon realizes that the corrupt world she lives in needs someone to speak up for the downtrodden – and that someone might as well be her, despite grave risks by a nearly all-seeing establishment.
Far in the future after civilization has fallen, a goat herder named Zachry (Hanks) living on a Pacific island in a village of peaceful farmers and shepherds is visited by Meronym (Berry), a member of a technologically advanced society called the Prescients. She wants to be guided to a distant place but nobody will take her because in order to get there they must go through the territory of a vicious tribe of cannibals called the Kona who are led by a particularly ruthless, nasty chief (Grant). Zachry agrees to do this in exchange for Meronym saving his daughter Catkin (Hanan) from death by a nasty infection.
These six stories are told concurrently with the film jumping from era to era, sometimes after only a matter of seconds. Initially it is going to sound a lot more confusing than it is; once you get settled into it, it’s actually not that hard following the stories. And while there is a bit of the stunt casting element (all of the main actors appear in one form or another in nearly every one of the six stories, some in more than one role) you get used to seeing the same faces in different roles thanks to some pretty nifty make-up jobs.
The overall theme here is that someone is being repressed and must face a decision as to whether to accept the repression and imprisonment or to act to end it, whether for themselves or for others. People have the capacity to leap beyond their own needs and give selflessly for the sake of others; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do. People also have the capacity to force others into lives of servitude and reap the benefits of these actions; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do as well.
The descriptions of the stories are actually fairly general and don’t really capture the whole magnitude of each vignette. Each story has an epic quality to it and while some are more personal than others (the Tykwer-directed stories in particular) there is certainly a sense that each story has ripple effects that magnify through time. While the stories don’t necessarily intersect directly, they often parallel one another with identical themes told in different ways. The stories aren’t necessarily meant to follow one another so much as complement one another.
It’s an ambitious work and without a stellar cast to carry it off it probably wouldn’t have worked as much. Not all of the roles work every time for the actors and often they are asked to move well out of their comfort zones but I suspect that they loved being pushed into places they hadn’t been or at least rarely go. Berry is intriguing in her 1973 and far future incarnations; Hanks does well in the far future and in 1849. Broadbent is fun in 2012 and more of a rotter in 1936; Whishaw does some fine work as the doomed composer in 1936 and Sturgess as the dying lawyer in 1849 and the somewhat guarded revolutionary in 2144.
Weaving also fares well as the 1973 hit man and as kind of a devil in the far future. Bae, whose work I wasn’t that familiar with to begin with, is magnificent in the 2144 sequence. She reminds me very much of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel. Not just from a physical standpoint but simply in the manner in which she acts.
Definitely this isn’t going to be for everyone. General audiences tend to want their science fiction to be action-oriented rather than thought-provoking (even Blade Runner wasn’t the hit Alien was); sure there’s a pretty sizable cult audience for thinking sci-fi but they don’t seem to be enough to really push movies such as this one into profitability which is a shame because work this ambitious and innovative should be rewarded.
I’m sure a lot of people were put off by the scope of the film, and by the reviews that placed it as cerebral. Not everyone goes to the movies to be intellectually stimulated and that’s okay. I like a visceral knuckle-dragging action movie as much as the next guy. I just like to have the part of me above the neck stimulated as much as my testosterone and this movie does both amply. Simply put, one of the movies that I will continue to debate and discuss with other film buffs for a very long time to come and clearly one of the year’s best.
REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and compelling. Awesome visual and make-up effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Some people are simply not going to know what to make of this. Cerebral sci-fi historically not a big box office winner.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some graphic nudity, a bit of bad language and some drug use (some of it involuntary).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wachowskis and Tykwer each directed three time period stories apiece, sharing no crew other than the actors themselves. The Wachowskis filmed the 1849, 2044 and far future sequences, Tykwer the 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty mixed but leaning towards the good.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Machine (2002)
DRAG LOVERS: Most of the main cast plays members of both genders at various times in the film.
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
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