The sky's the limit
With ‘Cloud Atlas,’ a team of struggling A-listers break free of career ruts via a transcendent tale
By Carl Kozlowski 10/25/2012
In a time when many movies can’t even make one story compelling for 90 minutes, the new film “Cloud Atlas” achieves the seemingly impossible by making six separate simultaneously told stories utterly involving. It’s such a mammoth undertaking that it required not just one world-class director to pull it off, but three — Andy and Lana Wachowski of “The Matrix” fame and Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run” — who provide some of the world’s best actors with the challenge of performing up to six roles each.
Based on the 2008 novel by British novelist David Booker, winner of six major awards, including the Man Booker Prize and the British Book Awards Best Literary Fiction honor, “Cloud Atlas” weaves together six tales taking place between 1849 and 2321. The directing trio, which also wrote the incredibly complex screenplay adaptation, cast such Oscar-winning stars as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon in different roles in each storyline before mixing them in with other acclaimed actors, such as Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Jim Sturgess, then stirring the pot so that many of these performers wind up crossing lines of vastly varying ages — and even racial and gender lines — by the time it’s all over.
Just understand this: If you thought Hanks or Grant were stuck in typecasting ruts and that Berry had lost her ability to pick a decent script since her Oscar win for “Monster’s Ball” a decade ago, then this is the movie that gives them all a good shakeup.
“Cloud Atlas” starts with Hanks as an extremely old man in 2321, a couple hundred years after a major societal collapse in which most cities disappeared and left people trapped living in jungles and rural areas. It then zips back in time to 1849, where Hanks is a shady doctor asked to cure a young man of a parasite as they embark on an ocean voyage in which an African slave proves his worth as a human. The story then jumps ahead to Berry as an investigative journalist in 1973 trying to prove her own strengths while on the trail of a nuclear power scandal.
The audience is also speedily transported to 1936, when a young and closeted gay musician is helping a legendary elderly composer write just one more masterpiece, only to find that the legend is blackmailing him in order to steal credit for the entire composition. Then in 2012, a book agent finds that he must plot a daring yet comical escape from a nursing home with three fellow residents after his brother tricks him into living there.
But in the most fantastical and entertaining segments of the film, set in 2144 amid the city of New Seoul, Korea, a half-woman, half-robot named SonMi — who’s one of countless such women forced to be waitresses and sex slaves to humans — finds one sympathetic human man who urges her to break free of her programming and make a run for freedom. If she succeeds, her breakthrough will provide the inspiration that can save the human race 200 years later.
Yes, that’s a lot of information to digest, and a lot of plotlines to juggle. But the Wachowskis and Tykwer team up with craftsman editing by Stephane Ceretti to keep the balls flying properly in the air and without letting a single moment fall flat. The six stories are told concurrently, jumping every three to five minutes from one plotline to another and often in differing rotations.
The film’s need for a $102 million budget scared off most traditional studio investors, leaving Lana Wachowski — who before her sex change was known as Larry, and who brought the book to the attention her cohorts — to lead a years-long quest for funds from all over the planet. And when that wasn’t enough, she and brother Andy dug deep into their own pockets to ensure everything was completed perfectly.
These are all top-notch people with something to prove. The Wachowskis are seeking redemption for two awful “Matrix” sequels and the disastrous “Speed Racer,” while Tykwer wanted to show that his astounding action film “Lola” wasn’t a one-hit wonder. Hanks, Grant and Berry are all coming off bad streaks and rise to the occasion with work that is vividly original and alive, bringing the rest of the cast along with them.
The running theme throughout the film is the human desire for freedom — to live life on one’s own terms, rather than being burdened by the dictates of slavery, overarching government, or an overly oppressive superstition or religion. All those who have made it have broken free of their own recent career shackles, and if you give it a chance, “Cloud Atlas” will exhilarate you as well.