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Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas

Rating

Director
Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Screenplay
Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski (Novel: David Mitchell)
Length
172 min.
Starring
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
MPAA Rating
R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use

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Review
Is love a universal truth or is social justice? Are they inextricably tied? Cloud Atlas wants to be everything for everyone and while having a bevy of subjects to latch onto and celebrate, the lack of focus causes the film to struggle through some of its duller moments.

Discussing much of what goes on in the successful collaboration of the Wachowski Siblings (who made The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), risks revealing too much information about the plot and ruining the experience for some. To that end, I'll try to keep the more pivotal plot turns out of the way and focus on the nuts and bolts and overarching concepts.

Six stories, spread across six different timelines reveal an engaging set of characters whose lives are as inexorably connected as they are unique. The eldest storyline is set during the American Civil War where a young man (Jim Sturgess) with a rare disease seeks the assistance of an eccentric doctor (Tom Hanks) so he can return home to the woman he loves. Along the way, his path crosses with a black stow away (David Gyasi) attempting to escape to a land where he will be free.

The second story is set a couple of decades later where a young composer (Ben Whishaw) wants to become successful by studying and scribing under a legendary composer (Jim Broadbent) all while corresponding with his secret lover (James D'Arcy). Adding frustration to his efforts is the attractive wife of the composer (Halle Berry) who wants to seduce him even if it means betraying the man he loves.

Set in the near past of the 1970's, a young reporter (Halle Berry) meets an aging scientist (James D'Arcy) who possesses secret documentation that may bring to light certain irregularities at a prominent nuclear power plant operated by a former oil executive (Hugh Grant). After the scientist is murdered, the investigative journalist heads to the plant to try to uncover more while encountering one of the scientist's colleagues (Tom Hanks) and the firm's head of security (Keith David).

The present finds a stressed book publisher (Jim Broadbent) finding sudden success when one of his clients (Tom Hanks) tosses a prominent literary critic from the roof of a party celebrating his new book. The success and financial gain lead the publisher to find himself threatened by his client's friends looking for a bigger cut. When he asks for help from his brother (Hugh Grant), he's secretly locked in a retirement home here he must concoct a plan to escape under the watchful eyes of a demented nurse (Hugo Weaving).

Moving several decades into the future, an artificial intelligence (Doona Bae) struggles with the regimintation of her life while her inebriated boss abuses one of her fellow duplicates. After a number of events, she escapes with the charismatic lieutenant (Jim Sturgess) of a major resistance cell to find a world in a more dire predicament than she expected.

In the distant future, a tribal group is beset by a group of marauding bandits while a knowledgable shepherd (Tom Hanks) seeks to protect his loved ones, but fears what would happen if he stood up to these others tribesmen. When a beautiful off-lander (Halle Berry) arrives seeking passage to the forbidden, and haunted mountain where she hopes to find a cure to her affliction.

Hanks, Berry, Broadbent, Sturgess, Whishaw, Weaving, Bae, David, D'Arcy, Gyasi, Grant and Xun Zou and Susan Saranond each take on at least three roles each with some performing in all six eras. Each of them have moments to shine, but the most intriguing performances are delivered by Sturgess, Whishaw, D'Arcy and Hanks. Hanks eats much scenery in some of his performances, but there's a genuine honesty in the rest that offset any negative overall impression. Berry, Broadbent and David are strong in all of their roles, but never step beyond their comfort zones. Grant and Weaving are great fun taking on villainous roles in nearly every time line. It's a departure for Grant, but Weaving has been doing this for years and I'm disappointed he wasn't given at least one heroic character to portray.

Sturgess has been a compelling actor since I first saw him in Across the Universe and his screen presence has grown more charming with age. Whishaw and D'Arcy play the most convincing couple in the piece even though their scenes together are relegated to the beginning and end of the film. Bae and Gyasi aren't given much to do and struggle to yield anything more than perfunctory acceptability.

The strength of the film, though, is in its premise. Love of one's fellow man play central roles in three of the stories, love for another is part of four. This gives the film an edge towards romanticism, but social justice feels like the more important aspect of the film. Using the oldest time period as an example, the segment seems focused more on the black slave seeking safe passage and finding respectability in the face of adversity than it is on the intense passion our main protagonist of this era feels towards his fiancée. The same can be said for the distant future timeline. While Berry and Hanks seem to be the central focus of the segments well written emotional development, its ties to the social justice of the past become stronger as the film progresses.

There is plenty of emotion on the film's sleeve, but the film is never maudlin. It relies on strong emotional threads to bring the audience to tears at key moments without feeling forced. While there is certainly some emotional strength to the futuristic story involving Hanks and Berry, the more engaging stories are between Sturgess and Bae and Whishaw and D'Arcy, two largely different emotional conflicts that have the most satisfying and relatable results.

One could easily argue that the lengthy duration makes the film a difficult sell and while this is true, it moves surprisingly well for what could have been a lumbering bore. A few segments could have been energized and sped up, for the most part, the pacing was strongly controlled much to the credit of editor Alexander Berner. The cinematography is rich and detailed, an unsurprising outcome considering John Toll was part of the photography team alongside Frank Griebe (Tykwer's cinematographer from Run Lola Run). Their work handily complements the production design crafted by Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup with assistance from set decorators Rebecca Alleway and Peter Walpole as well as costumers Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud.

What didn't work was the frequently unrealistic makeup employed by a team of artists whose desire to slather on the prosthetics to the detriment of the film created a large disconnect. Some of the work was exceptional (such as Hanks' Civil War-era facial hair or Bae's southern belle transformation), but the misses were more abundant including the lackluster Asian makeup applied to both Whishaw and D'Arcy as well as the excessive facial tattooing used in the distant future scenes, and Bae's 1970's era makeup dump. I'm not quite sure how to feel about Halle Berry's white face, but it doesn't look nearly as bad as I expected, but wasn't precisely the most revelatory design concept.

For fans of visual effects spectacles, Cloud Atlas will please, but won't result in any major discussions about the impact it will have on future generations of designers like the Wachowski's The Matrix did. They are nice, simple effects that support the story well even if they have some somewhat antiquated design content and never really get involved deeply in the film's action.

I don't believe a lot of audiences will appreciate Cloud Atlas. It may have some nicely original concepts paired with forward-thinking political commentary, but it isn't as riveting or entertaining as a major hit needs to be. I could find any number of topics to discuss after seeing the film, but anyone on the far right on social issues will find plenty to carp about. Cloud Atlas may have more relevance in the future as it creeps into the cult mainstream, but that transition will take time and a great deal of effort by its undoubtedly ardent supporters.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: None
Probables: Art Direction, Visual Effects
Potentials: Original Score, Editing, Cinematography, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
Review Written
November 7, 2012

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