Reviews - Cloud Atlas
Reviewed By John Stakes
Close to becoming abandoned on several occasions during its making, the project was kept alive mainly thanks to one of its principal actors Tom Hanks whose enthusiasm never waned. It was premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival and won a ten minutes standing ovation following its two hours forty five minutes' screening time. The film, produced, co-written and directed by the Polish-American team The Wachowskis (Paul and Lana/Larry) prompts two questions: was it worth it and what was it about? Why, because it has certainly divided its critics and has appeared on various lists of best and worst films of 2012.
What was it about? Well its title gives nothing away save that it is hugely expansive in its feel and its narrative and plotting has been described as cloudy if not opaque. Space does not permit a detailed description, but broadly in structure it concerns six scenarios set in different time frames (over a five hundred years’ period) in each of which the main characters play a different part. So for example Hanks plays Dr Henry Goose in "The Pacific Journey of Adam Ewing" set in 1849, the hotel manager in "Letters from Zedelghem" in 1936, Isaac Sachs in "half Lies – the First Louisa Rey Mystery" 1973, Dermot Hoggins in "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", A Cavendish look alike actor in 2144, and Zachry in "Slooshla's Crossin" in 2321. Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw follow suit.
The book's structure is abandoned in favour of a simultaneous depiction of each scenario following an initial pre-title introduction, and complicated by a frustrating tactic of revisiting each scenario but not necessarily in chronological order either in relation to the other scenarios or within its own. Each scenario is depicted using a different genre, quite why remaining a mystery unless explained as a demonstration of the range of directorial prowess. And, finally, there is a beyond the grave narrative from each of the main players….and an epilogue with Zachry telling these stories to a group of children sometime after 2321.
The themes ventilated within this fractured formula included the cycle of life, the repetition of history, reincarnation, afterlife, predestination, good and evil, and probably many more. As the film progressed the power of love to change the course of events emerged as one of the defining influences on the human condition.
It was to be expected that the directors' take on the old world, this and even the next one would be far from straightforward given their pedigree in films such as "The Matrix" trilogy. The official synopsis described the film as "an exploration as to how the actions of individual lives impact on one another in the past, present, and future" and the reincarnation of souls. Well yes perhaps, but each character assumed an entirely different persona from one age to another here, and the stories intertwined like maypole dancing. The frenetic editing ensured that the detection and pursuit of threads proved taxing.
The answer was simply to sit back and let the film's visual flair wash over the viewer. There were some stunning set pieces and the panache of the camera work sustained the film’s momentum throughout. Imagine if you can a work concocted from a fusion of "Inception", "Soylent Green", "Blade Runner", "The Island", "Metropolis", "Pride and Prejudice" and other British costume dramas, and with a dash of US crime caper, and you still fall short of the sum total of the ingredients in this confection of cinematic fine dining. No wonder it came close to being Oscar nominated for its special effects.
It was also quite fun trying to spot the actors in their later roles as the make-up team piled on the prosthetics (anyone remember "The List of Adrian Messenger"?) and Hugh Grant for example was almost unrecognisable in one role (Seer Rhee?), but this device tended to divert rather than attract attention.
The musical score by co-director Tom Tykwer and two contemporaries who had worked with him previously, tuned into the film's big themes, and helped prevent this mosaic of a movie from becoming too kaleidoscopic.
Was the film worth it? To date it has returned over $124 million and has yet to be released on DVD so commercially it has not been a flop. It has probably not advanced the careers of anyone involved but one has to applaud its ambition and risk taking. Keswick's large audience had no difficulty in warming to it.
Next Sunday is the final film of the season... And what a cataclysmic finale is in the offing. Until 2012 the most successful film in China, a blood and bullets extravaganza for which oriental cinema is famed. The 2010 "Let The Bullets Fly" from director Jiang Wen might explore the incidence of death rather more than the meaning of life, but sounds no less startling in its own way.
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