I never had much interest in watching Cloud Atlas. I didn’t read the book, and while the trailer looked somewhat intriguing, everything I heard about the story itself kind of made the movie sound like a convoluted nightmare. And if it had been a convoluted nightmare starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tatiana Maslany, I’m sure I wouldn’t have hesitated, but Tom Hanks and Halle Berry aren’t particularly big draws for me, and what little interest I did have quickly dwindled after the film left theaters.
But recently my sister struggled through Cloud Atlas (the book) and wanted to watch the movie to compare. And I had just finished struggling through Rebecca (the book) and wanted to watch that movie to compare.
A compromise was arranged and a review was born. (A review for Rebecca may come next week.)
Christ. Um. Six individual stories that take place over the course of several centuries reveal how the choices we make in our time affect those in the future, and how all human stories, no matter when or where they take place, are concerned with the same basic values — love and liberty. Or something like that?
1. First, I feel like it should be said that this is a wildly ambitious project. I don’t feel like, for me, it was an entirely successful one (or even a mostly successful one), although there are aspects to the film that I enjoyed or, at the very least, could appreciate. Even without reading the book myself, I can’t imagine the work that went into translating this kind of multi-generational/multi-ethnic/multi-everything story into the big screen. So, that’s worth noting.
2. It’s also worth noting, though, that this movie (at 172 minutes) is entirely too long for me. At one point, Mekaela paused Cloud Atlas for a stretch/food/bathroom break, and I realized we still had 80 minutes to go instead of the 30 or 40 that I had initially assumed. I quickly became very depressed.
It doesn’t help that I find the 2012 story featuring Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) almost entirely worthless.
What little I liked about this segment can’t be discussed without Spoilers, so I’ll briefly sum up what I didn’t like: tonally, it feels completely inconsistent with the rest of the film. Where the other sections of the movie are dramatic and impassioned and suspenseful (or, at least, they attempt to be), this story mostly feels cartoonish. Which I suppose is intentional — Timothy Cavendish is clearly meant to be the comic relief — but the comedy itself feels forced and, really, just not all that funny. As a whole, I found the 2012 plot both implausible and boring. I didn’t care if Cavendish made it out of the entirely unlikely scenario he found himself in, and I couldn’t stand how they wrapped his whole segment up.
While liberty is, rather literally, an integral part of this story, the element of love is . . . well. Somewhat less significant. And by somewhat less significant, I mean to say that Cavendish’s love interest is shoehorned into the story with the kind of thought and subtlety you expect from product placement . . . and not just any product placement. Product placement in Wayne’s World.
3. Actually, for a movie that seems particularly concerned with Love, capital L, I didn’t find this to be a particularly romantic film. The only love story that truly works for me is the 1936 one about the bisexual composer and the sweet boyfriend he left behind.
All the others fail on some level or another. Some aren’t terrible — the 2144 New Seoul romance is adequate, I suppose, if not particularly inspired — but others (like the last-minute romance on the Big Isle) just does nothing for me at all. I know I like to pretend I have a cold, dead heart, but I can be moved by a decent love story, if you bother to take the time to actually write decent love stories, which, no. These just aren’t.
4. While I didn’t read the novel myself, I did pick up a little bit about it, mostly from whenever my sister would start muttering under her breath, “Well, that’s not what happened, but okay.” I do think Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings made a smart call by changing up the narrative structure — telling this story chronologically might have played in the novel, but I think it would’ve been a big mistake for the film adaptation. I’m also glad that the New Seoul storyline turned out differently, as I’m pretty sure I would’ve had a complete temper tantrum if they’d gone with the original ending.
5. However, I do feel that having the core cast play multiple characters from various ethnicities and genders was ultimately a really bad idea.
The best thing I can say about this is that someone from every ethnicity plays someone from every other ethnicity, and both women and men play each other. So, it’s somewhat inclusive, at least, and not the usual blackface or yellowface bullshit that’s sadly typical of Hollywood . . . although I think it’s also fair to point out that the main cast is still vastly white. Of the thirteen main actors listed here, eight are Caucasian, three are black, and only two are Asian (one Korean, one Chinese).
Also, that’s actually not true, what I just said about every ethnicity playing every other ethnicity — because I forgot about the total lack of Latino actors. Luisa Rey’s ethnicity is not actually brought up in the film, but her name is a Spanish one — which, admittedly, isn’t proof positive that her character is supposed to be of Hispanic descent, but it’s certainly not a terrible indication, either. Also, Doona Bae has a small but somewhat significant role as a Mexican woman in the same storyline . . . and yet no one in the main cast is Latina? Really, guys?
Ultimately, I don’t find the racebending — if that’s even the appropriate term, in this scenario — quite as offensive as many others do, although I can easily see why they would. But even if we could all agree that it’s in good taste (which, ha), I still take issue with how it’s presented here because unfortunately — and apologies to the late Roger Ebert, who I vehemently disagree with on this particular point — the makeup fails spectacularly on multiple occasions. Sometimes, it’s not so bad, and then sometimes — oh my God, it’s BAD.
Hugo Weaving (pictured above) probably gets the worst of it. None of the white actors are particularly (or at all) convincing as Korean characters, and yet Weaving’s makeup looks so much more horrifically offensive. I was also mildly appalled by his Caucasian woman. The fact that Weaving so spectacularly fails to look like anything but a man in weird nurse drag almost feels like a play for laughs, like ha ha, men who dress up as or identify as women are so funny! (I don’t actually think that’s intentional, considering one of the directors of this movie is a transgendered woman — although I would point out that she didn’t direct this particular segment. It’s possible that the awkwardness here is simply a side effect of the general comedic tone of the 2012 story, but regardless of intention, I was still kind of bothered by it.)
And while it took me a minute or two to actually recognize Hugh Grant in Old Man Makeup, I still knew it was some young guy in Old Man Makeup, and I mean, from the very second I saw him. It was incredibly obvious. At worst, the makeup is offensive. At best, it is HUGELY distracting throughout the film, consistently taking me out of the story . . . and for what? I can’t really discuss this much more here, but I’ll just say for now that the whole racebending aspect to the film felt very gimmicky to me, and I’m not at all convinced that it was necessary.
6. I wish the far-future story had a little bit more world-building involved. Or maybe I just wish that because I had such a hard time actually understanding any of the exposition.
In the far future, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry speak a kind of pidgin English, and as someone who’s vaguely interested in linguistics and cultural anthropology, I find that interesting. As an audience member who’s already likely half-deafened herself by listening to too-loud music on her headphones, though, I kept begging them to slow down so I could catch the fucking words they were saying. Ultimately, I got enough of the gist to understand the basic story, and for some reason, I found Halle Berry a little easier to follow than Tom Hanks, but good God, I was struggling for every word.
7. Finally, before I talk about them specifically, I just figured I’d mention my favorite segments of the movie were probably the 1936 story, the 1973 story, and the 2144 story. As I said earlier, the romance worked best for me in the 1936 story (which is actually funny, and I’ll tell you why in just a few moments), while the 1973 and 2144 stories were anchored by strong and interesting female characters.
Well, okay. Somni-451 (Doona Bae) does get rescued a lot in her section, but I still found her interesting for some reason. And while I’ve never been Halle Berry’s biggest fan, I very much enjoyed her as Luisa Rey. I totally could’ve watched her in that role for the whole movie.
Sadly, Cloud Atlas is a wee bit larger than that. Much to my sorrow.
I’m wondering if it might be easier to approach this movie story by story. I absolutely refuse to discuss everything that happens in every segment, but if I tackle them individually first, it might make it easier to analyze the film as a whole. We’ll try it out — and if it doesn’t work, you probably won’t know, because I’ll just have deleted this whole section. Also, if my reviews ever sound like they’re talking to themselves, well, most of the time, they are.
I actually have very little to say about this one. White lawyer is saved by his new black friend from an evil white doctor and, in the process, learns that slavery is bad. That’s kind of the whole story. The only thing I wanted to bring up is to compare the love story here with the love story from 1936. Both are epistolary romances — our lawyer is writing in his journal as he travels home to his wife, while the composer is writing letters to his boyfriend, Sixsmith — but the wife is not even a little important here. I actually entirely forgot about her until we see Lawyer Adam rushing into her arms, like, it’s some big, dramatic, ‘you’ve-been-waiting-for-this-the-whole-movie’ moment and I’m like, Oh, right. So, she exists.
You could argue, I suppose, that the love story here isn’t about Adam and his wife, that it’s more of a fraternal love story between Adam and his new friend, Autua — which I would totally be into, since I feel like there isn’t enough emphasis on non-romantic love in Hollywood. But that’s absolutely not the impression I get from Cloud Atlas, where the focus is ALWAYS on romantic love. This is especially unfortunate, as the shitty romances will continue to be a problem for me throughout the film.
Here’s the funny thing about this relationship: you almost never see Frobisher and Sixsmith together in the entire movie, and yet you’re rooting for them to make it, even though Frobisher is, in my opinion, kind of a conceited pain in the ass. I still like him, which I mostly attribute to Ben Whishaw’s charm, but he is the kind of Artiste that would drive me entirely nuts if I actually had to spend any quality time with him.
This is why I think their romance works, when almost all of the others fail:
A. Sixsmith is the only character, I believe, who appears in two different stories. He will also pop up in the 1973 story as Old Sixsmith, and that continuity of character, I think, makes me more invested in him. (Sadly. Things basically suck forever for Sixsmith.)
B. Unlike Lawyer Adam’s wife (who does not have her own journal to write in), we actually see Sixsmith’s (admittedly silent) reactions to the letters, as well as his slightly bizarre but kind of delightful dream where the two are silently and gleefully breaking fine china all over the place.
I have daydreams like that. Who wants to break crockery with me?
C. We begin Frobisher’s story near the very end, as he’s writing a last letter to Sixsmith and putting a gun in his mouth. You spend the whole movie waiting to see if Sixsmith is going to get there in time, hoping that he will while knowing almost certainly that he won’t — there is, after all, no Old Frobisher in 1973 — and that tension makes the audience more invested in their romance.
Sixsmith is about two minutes too late, and James D’Arcy’s performance here is very moving. I really feel bad for this guy. I also feel kind of annoyed that the only love story to end tragically is the gay romance. (Well, I suppose that’s debatable. But the so-called love story of 1973 is ridiculous, so I wouldn’t even count it, and I don’t actually consider the 2144 story all that tragic. But I’ll get to that.)
A few last notes:
A. Halle Berry’s character is entirely dropped from the storyline and doesn’t really seem necessary in the first place. Except, I suppose, to keep everything in balance and make sure that a black actress plays a white role. Still, I wish her character had, you know, some actual significance.
B. Considering that the whole movie is named after it, I kind of expected the Cloud Atlas Sextet to be more, I don’t know, amazing. I’m not saying it’s bad. I just didn’t love it.
C. I wish Frobisher’s reasons for committing suicide were a little more clear. From what I understand, he did it in the novel because he’d created his biggest masterpiece and there was really no point in living afterwards, or some such nonsense. (I’m telling you, I’m not that kind of artiste. I have such little patience for this kind of bullshit.) In the movie, though, it’s kind of like he just does it because it’s scripted. I mean, either way, Frobisher is sort of an asshole, but still. The whole ‘I’ll never do anything better’ reason annoys me on a personal level, but totally seems in character — but, guys, you still have to address it in the movie, or offer up some kind of alternative explanation.
This is the investigative thriller story, and it’s pretty fun for the most part. Halle Berry is really enjoyable as Luisa — she’s sort of spunky but comes off as a real person, and I entirely buy all of her reactions. Three things to mention:
A. Assassin Hugo Weaving kills Old Sixsmith by shooting him through the mouth, presumably because Assassin Hugo Weaving is a fan of deeply mean parallels. Have I mentioned how sorry I am for Sixsmith? Seriously, his whole life is terrible.
B. I am not impressed by Keith David’s plan to kill Assassin Hugo Weaving. Like, at all.
C. Tom Hanks plays a bit part in this story as this scientist dude who instantly falls in love with Luisa.
I mean, they talk for approximately three minutes, and that’s it. (He is then promptly killed for helping her out, but never mind that now.) I . . . really don’t know what to do with this. If you’re just looking at these two characters in this one story alone, their instant love is absurd. I mean, it’s really dumb. Admittedly, I’ve never been a big fan of love at first sight stories, but even those stories generally give the actors something to work with. Here, nothing. Zippo, zero, nada.
If the idea is that these two souls keep falling in love with one another, you’d think they’d come together in every story. But they don’t — Halle Berry and Tom Hanks are not, so far as I understand, romantically linked in the 1849, 1936, 2012, or 2144 segments. Unless Halle Berry’s soul and Tom Hanks’s soul are not represented by Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in each life. That would certainly seem true in Halle Berry’s case — because she has a very distinct birthmark that’s not only very similar to Frobisher’s birthmark but also to a main character from each story. (And all of these characters are played by different actors, specifically Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, and Jim Sturgess.)
So say Lawyer Adam’s Soul was reborn into Frobisher and Frobisher’s soul was reborn into Luisa Rey. If this movie is about two souls who keep falling in love with one another, then that would mean Lawyer Adam’s Wife was reborn into Sixsmith who was then reborn into Scientist Dude Tom Hanks. But not only does that fail chronologically (Scientist Dude Tom Hanks is obviously born well before Sixsmith dies), it really makes no sense for only one of the souls in this Destined Couple to have a nifty, reoccurring birthmark. So either the birthmark does not mean that each person who has it possesses the same soul (in which case, what the BLOODY HELL does it mean) or Tom Hanks and Halle Berry aren’t always meant to love one another (in which case, why the FUCKING HELL does Tom Hanks feel this Destined Love Connection).
And — well, shit. I didn’t actually mean to go into all of this yet — I really just planned to point out that Scientist Dude’s love for Luisa feels like a ham-fisted attempt to tie each story together with love, thematically speaking — but since I’m already here: at this point, I don’t see a story reason to have the same actors play multiple roles per segment. If the birthmark is the only indicator of a repeating soul, then you certainly don’t need it — you either get one actor to play the same soul in every segment, or everybody in every segment is different. (You know, like how the world actually works. Reincarnation may or may not be real, but I suspect if you hunt through history, you’re not going to keep finding my face over and over again . . . although I’d be delighted if you can prove me wrong on that. Delighted, and mildly creeped out.)
Meanwhile, if Tom Hanks is always Tom Hanks . . . well, why? What does that do for the story? Because as an audience member, I can’t say that I’m seeing any meaningful connection between the various characters played by Tom Hanks, or any of the actors for that matter. Hugo Weaving is, not shockingly, always an antagonist, but Hanks (among others) plays both protagonists, antagonists, and just random extras. Either way, no one seems to learn anything from their past lives, either consciously or unconsciously. I can’t track a progressive forward movement where the soul appears to be evolving or devolving. And if there is no meaningful pattern . . . why even be discussing souls at all?
Because, really, I’m not convinced that the story even needs to have these reoccurring souls. There are connections (some admittedly more tenuous than others) between all six segments, where what people choose to do affects other people down the road, people in future times and future places, people they’ll never meet and maybe could hardly even imagine. Reincarnation isn’t necessary for these connections to be significant, for this story to have purpose. The mortal choices are the ones I find moving here. The immortality, the destined purpose, the fated love . . . all of that is where I feel like the story falls down hard.
And yet if there is no reincarnation — why dress up the same principle cast in this often offensive and highly distracting makeup, unless it’s a gimmick? Why not just have an epically large cast with actors playing characters who share their actual ethnicities and genders?
All right. Now that I’ve found myself in a 1,000 word intermission, let’s go back to the individual stories, shall we?
Well, I’ve already told you that I actively disliked The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which just depresses the crap out of me because — look at that name! The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is an amazing title — I just adore the crap out of it — and yet. We get this. Sigh.
It’s possible that reading about Cavendish would’ve been more entertaining, but as is, I just found myself so bored every time we went back to this guy. His story starts strong — well, his story starts with Tom Hanks as a gangster, so believability is something of an issue. Still, Gangster Tom Hanks abruptly throws a critic over a balcony, and that definitely startled me into laughing really hard. That was awesome.
Unfortunately, that’s the last moment that works for me in this segment. I don’t particularly like Cavendish, certainly not enough to feel sorry for him, and I don’t really believe that his brother would let him rot in a nursing home for the rest of his life. I find Nurse Hugo Weaving to be deeply problematic. I’m not hugely entertained by the antics of the old people trying to escape, and I just feel that, in general, this sort of goofy comedy is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.
And for fuck’s sake, I can’t believe Jim Broadbent ends up with Susan Sarandon.
Before Cavendish accidentally checks himself into a nursing home, he briefly goes to spy on The One Who Got Away. This turns out to be the girlfriend he (many a year ago) lost his virginity to in the awkwardly comedic fashion that you would expect from this guy. And I guess Susan Sarandon has spent the last fifty years secretly pining for Jim Broadbent too, because after he escapes from the evil nursing home, they get together — and never mind the fact that he spends no time thinking about this woman during the film, other than the three seconds he stands outside her window like a fucking creeper. They are in LOVE, dammit. FATED SOULMATE LOVE.
It just bugs me. Susan Sarandon’s character — if you can call a smiling woman with no lines and seven seconds of screen time an actual character — is held out like a prize for all of Cavendish’s troubles, like oh, you escaped from the Fortress of Doom, now here’s your Rescued Princess! Cause sure, she’s had her whole life to live while you’ve been busy publishing books by non-intimidating gangsters, and sure, she seemed relatively happy in those three seconds you spent spying on her, but I’m sure she wasn’t really happy until you came waltzing back into her life with all your seedy connections, psychopathic relatives, and crippling money problems. I know that’s what I look for in a man.
Like I said, I don’t buy most of the luv connections in this movie, but this one was possibly the most ridiculously contrived.
This was probably my third favorite segment in the bunch, but if I’m being honest, I’m not entirely sure why. There’s nothing hugely special about it — the two romantic leads had very little chemistry, and the future dystopia itself wasn’t anything hugely original. (In fact, it’s getting to the point where it’s not a future dystopia anymore without the disenfranchised discovering that they’re eating something particularly horrific — although I did think the soylent green reference in the 2012 story was clever.) And, of course, the Caucasian people playing the Korean people is basically the worst. I’ve mentioned Hugo Weaving already, but Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo is also . . . not good.
No. Not good at all.
I did enjoy Doona Bae as Somni-451, though, particularly in her interview with the Archivist. And maybe I just have a weakness for cool looking SF — because even though this story doesn’t really bring anything new to the dystopia table, I still found myself more intrigued by it than many of the others. In fact, the only thing I really did enjoy from the 2012 story (other than the abrupt death of the snotty critic) is how it influenced this one. Cavendish’s dumbass life story apparently became a very overwrought and silly looking film, only Somni-451 (who has never even seen a James Bond movie, much less a piece of cinematic genius like Casablanca or Some Like it Hot) looks at THIS movie like it’s true art. I do think it’s interesting, how future generations could potentially build whole ideals or belief systems on the misinterpretations of past laws, religious beliefs, art exhibits, etc, so I did find this connection interesting. It actually kind of reminded me of reading “Source Decay” by Charlie Jane Anders.
Arguably, Somni-451 and Hae-Joo’s romance is tragic, as, you know, they both die. But it doesn’t strike me as particularly tragic, partially because I don’t really care about these two as a couple (they’re pretty by-the-numbers, as The Hero and The Prophesied One go, almost like a gender-reversed Trinity and Neo) and partially because their story still seems like a victory, which, I don’t think you can really say that about Frobisher and Sixsmith. I am glad they changed this from the book, though, because apparently — book spoilers — the whole revolution deal is one big set-up/lie in the original novel, and seriously, people, I am so OVER that bullshit twist.
After the Fall:
Like I said before, I wish we got more world-building in this one — because being thrown into the deep end is kind of fun, but I was confused on how Somni-451’s story influenced the culture here. Like Tom Hanks’s people thought she was a goddess, or something? I really wanted to understand their religion a little better. I wouldn’t have minded knowing what was killing Halle Berry’s people, either, and I certainly wish I understood what the fuck was up with the satellite. I assume she was basically sending out an SOS to outer space, since they’re all on another planet at the end of the film? I’m not sure who she was asking for help, though. Aliens? Space colonists? The USS: Enterprise? Though, again, maybe these questions were answered in the film, and I just didn’t understand, as I didn’t catch half the dialogue.
At the end of the movie, we find out that Old Tom Hanks and Old Halle Berry end up together and have a big ass family, which I guess isn’t as bad as their inexplicable love connection in 1973, although I have to say, I didn’t see their relationship as being even a little romantic until, boom, they were suddenly together. Like, Old Tom Hanks is just all, ‘Yeah, we’ve been a happy couple for fifty or so years,’ and I’m all like, “Wait, WHAT?”
And . . . well, shit, I guess that’s about it. Finally.
It’s not a terrible movie. It’s ambitious and interesting, and I like certain things about it. But when Variety describes it as an “intense three-hour mental workout rewarded with a big emotional payoff,” I’m like, nope. Because where this movie falls down for me — other than the well-meaning but ultimately awkward racial stuff — is that there is no big emotional payoff, at least, not one that I found. Almost all of the love stories feel contrived to me, and while yay!liberty is a solid theme, I don’t feel like Cloud Atlas is telling me anything I don’t already know. I’m not moved by this movie, and I have significant intellectual problems with it as well.
I’m giving this one to Halle Berry, I think, but I liked James D’Arcy a good deal, too.
Slavery bad, love pretty?