Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Cloud Atlas

CLOUD ATLAS (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski, 2012)

CLOUD ATLAS plays connect the dots across the years in six concurrent stories with the same primary actors playing multiple roles over the different periods.  Lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) sees firsthand the horrors of slavery in the South Pacific islands in 1849.  In his diary, later to be published, he writes about this and his rapidly declining health on the voyage home.  Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is reading it in 1936 as he works and stays with a famous composer in Cambridge, England.  On the side Frobisher writes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, which is largely unremembered yet sought out by Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a reporter investigating a possible cover-up at a nuclear power plant in San Francisco in 1973.  

Luisa’s story is one that crosses the path of London book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in 2012.  He writes about his own experiences hiding out from a client’s thugs and has it turned into a film, part of which is seen in 2144 Neo Seoul, Korea by server clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae).  Her inspirational words are passed down through an unspecified number of years and elevate her to god-like status among the primitives like Zachry (Tom Hanks).

The scope and ambition in CLOUD ATLAS are so enormous that the three writer/directors--Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski--and editor Alexander Berner don’t so much as tame novelist David Mitchell’s unruly tangle of loosely linked plots across centuries but make it presentable and even coherent. Berner’s editing is often nothing short of remarkable in connecting these disparate pieces so that they seem part of a whole.  As an instructional in crosscutting, it’s quite an achievement.  

CLOUD ATLAS shouldn’t work.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Prosthetics and makeup are used to sell the transformations for those in the main cast who switch genders and races from story to story.  Often the actors look ridiculous.  The pidgin English that passes for the future language of a post-apocalyptic tribe can sound silly.  The shifts in tone from one storytelling style to another can be jarring and incompatible.

Yet CLOUD ATLAS proves to be worthy of wrestling with its big philosophical ideas, including the seemingly misguided ones, and engaging with a consistent vision of fluidity among the ages and eternal truths.  For such a sprawling endeavor, CLOUD ATLAS reduces to some basic points.  At heart are the beliefs that individual voices can make a difference across time, if not in their own, and that love is ultimately what endures. CLOUD ATLAS is prone to sappiness and threatens to disappear up its own tail like THE MATRIX trilogy, but it builds to an irresistible final act celebrating the human spirit.  

Grade: B-

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