Review: Cloud Atlas

Photo 1 Cloud Atlas poster
Cloud Atlas poster used under Creative Commons license.

Movie Review: “Cloud Atlas,” written and directed by Tom Twyker and the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, from the book by David Mitchell. Before I start, let me reiterate that I don’t like “spoiler” reviews that reveal the end of a book or movie. Even so, it’s sometimes necessary to give away some details from the book or movie to do—and everyone differs on just what a “spoiler” is. As always, this review is *my* opinion only and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories Magazine or its editor or publisher.

So why am I reviewing a movie that came out months ago? When it first appeared—and even when it first came to video—I was told that it had something to do with reincarnation, a bunch of well-known actors playing different characters, and was confusing and hard to follow. Finally, this month in a fit of boredom, I rented it from our local video store (Yes, we still have a local video store!) and prepared to be ho-hummed to death. Guess what? All those nay-sayers were wrong, and I think this movie needs a lot more exposure.

Yes, the story can be confusing—while the book has separate sections for each period, the movie interweaves them—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Plus there are only thirteen main actors to play many characters, widely separated by time, space, gender and often race. Reincarnation? I didn’t get that—although several of the main characters have the same birthmark (a comet), I don’t think it signifies rebirth into a new body; rather, it’s a sign that all the people in this movie are interconnected in some way. (The movie’s tagline, which you can see in the poster, is “Everything is connected.”)

Photo 2 Hugo Weaving Cloud Atlas
Hugo Weaving as “Old Georgie” Photo used under Creative Commons license.

The story begins sometime in the future, where old Zachry Bailey begins to tell his story; we’re not sure where or when he is, but he has a tattooed and scarred face; and we suddenly realize this is Tom Hanks. He speaks a degraded version of English, and behind his head in the night sky is a beautiful spread of the Milky Way. We learn his tribe is a somewhat primitive one, who fear “Old Georgie” (Hugo Weaving), who is a “fanged devil.” Within a few minutes the story shifts and we’re in the 1849 “Pacific Islands.”

Our narrator now is Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), who introduces Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), who is going to be his physician—and we find this man is digging for human teeth—from a “cannibal banquet hall”–to sell on the market. Dr. Goose is our symbol of human avarice, who’s fond of sayings like “The weak are meat; the strong shall eat.”

And our viewpoint shifts again to 1972, where a woman named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is driving her VW Beetle down a long causeway and muttering something about a murder of a Doctor Sixsmith; as she pulls up to a crowd outside a gate, we realize two things: one, she’s a reporter, and two, this is some kind of nuclear facility that the crowd is protesting.

Just as quickly we shift to an unspecified time and place that appears to be in nearly present-day England. Our narrator is now an older man (Jim Broadbent) typing some kind of memoir. Next up, we meet Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in 1936, who’s writing a letter to a friend named Sixsmith about how he, Frobisher, committed suicide “today.” In fact, in quick succession, we meet all the major actors and characters of the movie.

Is it confusing? Well, yes, at this point, and continues so until you begin to be comfortable with the time jumps, which are by no means sequential. Curiously enough, this technique—with the two directorial teams dividing up the periods for filming and then cutting them together in the editing process—seems to serve the story and purpose of the movie better than how the book did it, which kept each period separate. You begin to see how the actions of any given person affect other people in that person’s present—and sometimes, up the line, in the far future.

Photo 3 Doona Bae Cloud Atlas
Doona Bae as Sonmi-451; photo used under Creative Commons license.

The two or three main characters we haven’t met at this point are Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a “fabricant” (clone) in the future city of Neo Soeul, who defies both programmed genetics and her own society’s rules to become not only a self-aware person but a human-rights activist and philosopher. We hear one of her philosophical lines: “Truth is singular. All versions of the truth are untruths.” We also meet Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy)—both young, as Frobisher’s lover, and old—as Luisa Rey’s source of information; The Abbess (Susan Sarandon), the spiritual leader of Zachry’s tribe, and Autua (David Gyasi), a Moriori tribesman who stows away on Ewing’s ship. There will be more characters, some fairly important, and some not, but most played by the same actors. (Hugo Weaving also plays several roles, including “Old Georgie,” his characters aren’t germane to this review.)

Maybe it’s more confusing to non-SF types; those who are not used to following multiple storylines and characters, those who can’t follow time shifts as we are somewhat expert in doing. I truly believe you can’t comprehend this movie in its entirety without a second viewing, however.

Because the various actors—shall I name them all? Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, James D’Arcy, David Gyasi, Jim Sturgess, and Xun Zhou plus a couple of minor character actors—are probably playing out of their comfort zones, we see a few exemplary performances: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant stick out in several characterizations, aided by what are some of the most superb makeup jobs in recent movie history (and one of the absolute worst: Doona Bae as a Mexican woman who looks somewhat like one of the Morlocks in the Rod Taylor “Time Machine”!)

Photo 4 Halle Berry Cloud Atlas
Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs; photo used under Creative Commons license.

I have heard rumblings (on the interwebz) that some feel it was somehow racist for Hugh Grant to play a Korean man; for Halle Berry to play a white woman; for Doona Bae to play a Mexican woman. I don’t think so; I think it was a terrific way to make us confront the fact that we’re all alike, and only an accident of birth or genetics made us male, female, white, black, or whatever. That purpose would not have been served had they hired a bunch of actors to make this movie Politically Correct.

There are a number of changes from the book; for example, Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) lived in Belgium in the book. But as usual, if you divorce yourself from the book—or if you haven’t read it—none of the changes are that significant, in my opinion. This is a Good SF Movie. And without any aliens, robots, or explosions. (Okay, there are clones, but they’re a significant part of the plot.) It’s an examination, in part, of what it means to be human; it points up how we treat each other, both historically and contemporarily, and it gives hope that even if things come to a head, there is still hope for the human species, whether natural or artificial. As Sonmi-451 says, “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

I really liked this movie, and if you were one of the people who passed it up, I urge you to take another look now that it’s available as a DVD/Blu-Ray rental; or when it’s a stream from Netflix or whomever.

Till next time, remember: The weak are *not* meat for the strong to eat!

[Ed. Note: This should have appeared yesterday, July 26 but did not due to editorial oversite.  My apologies to the author and the audience.]

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  1. Actually, the tagline “Everything is connected” can be seen in THIS poster if you have teeny-tiny eyes. ‘Cause this picture is a lot smaller than the one I submitted–that’s a fault of WordPress rather than the editor–a half-column for this type of WordPress is under 300 pixels. Which I should have realized. Go ahead, Google it–you’ll see it under Google images.

  2. I also liked a lot the movie. In my case I prefer the book, but the changes etc, made in the movie don’t bother me at all, because as you said they are not so relevant for the story and I always consider a movie made form a book “another thing”, it is useless to compare. It a great book and it a great movie. I agree with you that using the same actors to portray different persons in different times and even different races is a a plus for the story.

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