A Constellation of Connections
Ambitious storytelling, grandiose visuals, and confluent characters surround Cloud Atlas, the latest metaphysical spectacle from the Wachowski producers and director Tom Tykwer. To call this film- adapted from the 2004 novel- a complete mess would be negating its rather overt messages and pronounced themes. But telling us these things is more assuring than showing, and the film becomes a struggle for clarity and deciphering amidst its six interweaving narratives.
Our earliest story embarks in 1849, on a maiden voyage in which an elite English businessman helps a stow-away slave while battling his own deadly sickness. Fast forward to 1934, where Robert Forbisher, a poor homosexual composer, takes shelter and finds work transcribing for a famous, vainglorious conductor. Into the 70’s we encounter Luisa Rey, a journalist in the middle of uncovering a Big Oil and Nuclear Power cover-up, having to avoid hit men in the middle of fulfilling her ethical duty.
In 2012, an old book publicist takes refuge, duped by his brother, in a high security retirement home to avoid debt collectors. Over 100 years into the future, in the city “Neo-Seoul,” a mechanized woman known as Sonmi-451, working as a waitress under totalitarian rule, becomes an integral part of a grassroots rebellion. The last chronicle takes place somewhere later, post-apocalyptic perhaps, on a Hawaiian Island, in which a goatherd pairs with an intergalactic woman on her quest while avoiding indigenous savages. Interplanetary travel and a clipped English language is also incorporated.
Six plots, loads of characters, but the same actors recur in different forms, often with clunky prosthetic noses, sometimes with baggy wrinkles and hairdos. Featured most prominently are Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, who share a few leading roles in each different time period, and play supporting ones in others. That is the basic idea, connecting different characters through time and space, the same actors portraying diverse people through distinct epochs in time, both benevolent and destructive. Most are connected by a curious comet-shaped birthmark and peculiar turquoise gems.
Its themes intersect by inciting visual cues and catered names and dialog, adept attempts by the filmmaker to ease the heavy viewer burden of making connections between past, present , and future. A journal written on the voyage is now a published work read by the maestro, whose apprentice’s love letters are used as evidence by the journalist three decades later. Sometimes these monumental clues become incongruent jigsaw pieces to a puzzle vastly complex, and yet, still mesmerizing. Certain credit must be given to the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer’s visions of worlds far beyond.
Their Neo-Seoul poses as the dystopic Blade Runner setting, a future filled with dark skyscrapers and neon lights serving under an authoritative government. In this particular narrative, Sonmi-451, played by Doona Bae, is one of many servant-working waitresses, mistreated on a regimented schedule in which they believe their unquestioned duty will offer them a nirvana escape. The reality is far more gruesome as she learns from a rebel crusader the truth about her species. “We are bound to each other from womb to tomb,” says one character, or as Sonmi-451 answers a question on her belief of the afterlife, when one door closes, another one opens.
Its most powerful theme- lives tethered to an ideal of social/racial/economical transcendence, breaking hierarchies and “gulfs” of human conceptualized disconnect- resonates in each time structure. There are so many actors in this film, all sharing spotlights and subtly dancing around the periphery in gauze and wig. Jim Broadbent is splendid as a sea captain, that temperamental composer, and most exuberantly, the book publicist cooped up in an elderly home. Playing his wicked chamber lady is Hugo Weaving, who also plays the sinister hitman and Sonmi interrogator. Hugh Grantalso plays chameleon, too, shifting from pompous corporate suit to face-painted carnal warrior.
Tykwer weaves through lives of weak and strong, tales of injustice and truth seeking, life and death. It’s a multi-genred blend that gives more than tastes but not enough to chew on, each narrative a possible feature-length film on its own. Looking for a blockbuster with everything, that’s able to relate them all together? This is the ticket.
Run Lola Run was Tykwer’s early hit, a detailed look into fate and free will, nurtured by a young Franka Potente, always on the run, with each step changing the course of outcomes. This film takes that insular analysis and maximizes it to extremes, but its message is not lost. In fact, Cloud Atlas takes the chances it can to repeat itself, montages with character narration relating prophetic wisdom over stunning imagery and climactic encounters.
Most of that filters into the last story, the goatherd and extraterrestrial woman climbing the Hawaiian terrain. Sometimes our confusion should be left to sink in and self-discover, but when this ambiguity is straightened for us, still more persists. Cloud Atlas is a messy marathon of a masterpiece. Its truth is evident, sometimes too much so.