Cloud Atlas (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Though just about anyone, from the most experienced critic to a casual moviegoer, can consider it a success or a failure, what cannot be denied is that “Cloud Atlas,” directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, has vision and it dares to ask us what we should expect from the movies as an art form and as a source of entertainment.
The plot does not hold much significance. And it does not need to. It is understandable that we are resistant of it, either only initially or throughout, because we are used to recognizing a template and seeing it build from the ground up. This one starts in the middle while floating on air. Right away it begins grow a trunk, all the way down until it takes root, as it simultaneously builds height and eventually bears fruit. Having a story unfold this way is frustrating, certainly. During its opening scenes I was confused. I wondered with crumpled brow when or if it was going to go anywhere worthwhile. After some time I gave up. But not on the movie. I gave up trying to make sense of it through a conventional lens.
To evaluate it in terms of plot, I think, is a misstep, a limitation in part of the perceiver. In essence, the film’s message is somewhere along the lines of a person’s action (or inaction) having a rippling effect across time and space. We track these decisions across six stories, each subsequent piece at least forty to a hundred years apart. They are interwoven to make an elegiac quilt. Actors play different characters regardless of their gender and race. Some of us might be distracted by the makeup; I was not. The focus is on the big picture: humans putting stamp on our home planet and beyond.
Each segment varies in level of curiosity and emotional impact. Most beautifully executed is one that begins in 1936 Cambridge as Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), with hopes of being hired by a renowned musician (Jim Broadbent) as an amanuensis. Frobisher thinks that by being around a person of considerable talent, he will learn to become a great composer someday. Under the direction of Tykwer, showing the images of Frobisher writing letters to Sixsmith along a voiceover that reads its contents as the score yearns and laments, creates a period piece with magnetic pull. We do not get to know the main players inside and out, but a lot of us, I imagine, will be able to relate to former or existing feelings of being young and wanting to accomplish so much that eventually we end up sacrificing more than we should.
Also compelling, but to a lesser degree, is the the Wachowskis’ love story between a clone named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and Hae-Joo (Jim Sturgess), member of a rebel group who shows her the reality of Neo Seoul 2144. What they have is forbidden. It is predictable that they are hunted by government agents and there are rapid-fire shootouts. Impressive special and visual effects are employed. But how do you know when a love story works? Here is one answer: When you know what is going to happen and yet you root for reality to turn out differently. In this case, the romance is told through flashbacks as Sonmi-451 is interviewed by an Archivist (D’Arcy) before she is put to death.
Two stories fail to take off: the 1849 voyage in the Pacific Ocean, directed by the Wachowskis, and the 1973 nuclear reactor conspiracy in San Francisco, directed by Tykwer. With the former, it is mostly composed of familiar elements of a white man (Sturgess) recognizing slavery of black people, through Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway, for what it really is. As shown here, it is difficult buy into a character somehow overcoming racial attitudes when the story is told only superficially. With the latter, Louisa (Halle Berry), a journalist, is mostly boring. Instead of really making us understand how her deceased father is major force behind her motivations, going as far as putting her life on the line, we are simply given shots of her glancing at his picture and then looking sad.
Based on the novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is not short on ambition. Two of the six parts are weak compared to the others but they are not so dull that they break the film’s overall rhythm. Also, I would have liked to have the birthmark, shaped like a comet, to have been delved into. The movement across time and back is so fluid that it is almost like looking into a memory of a soul that has gone through several incarnations.