is not so much a film as it is an experience, a rich visual journey back and forth through (and within) time. Written for screen and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, it examines the connections and influences of lives and events over time revealed through six different story lines during six different time periods. The six stories unfold in a completely non-linear way and share different incarnations of the same characters. You’ll recognize most of the major actors in their more important roles in the six stories, but don’t waste your time trying to figure out all six characters each plays. During the credits, they’ll be revealed with stills of their various incarnations. Yes, make-up and prosthetics are amazing!
The film begins and ends with an old man with tribal facial markings sitting by a campfire late at night, telling tales of the past which he describes as “voices in the wind”. The character, who appears to live in the far past, is Zachry (Tom Hanks) who actually lives in a post-apocalyptic future. Zachry’s small, peaceful tribe lives in the valley of what appears to be an island. There, they are harassed and attacked by a ruthless and cannibalistic warrior tribe. You will definitely not recognize Hugh Grant as the chief of these marauders, but I must say that I was pleased to see him get the chance to show he can do more than stammer charmingly or act the cad – also charmingly. Their island is also visited from time to time by a technologically-advanced group called the Prescients who believe that the mountain on the island holds the key to escaping the increasingly damaged and poisonous environment of Earth. One of the Prescients is Meronym (Halle Berry) who asks permission to stay and try to find the key. Meronym and Zachry’s story connects the beginning and end of the film and provides the needed unity in what sometimes seems a bit like a crazy-quilt.
Another story line, introduced immediately after Zachry begins his tales, through quick-cut editing, involves a lawyer, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) who has come to the South Seas in the late 1840’s to secure a contract for slave trade for his father-in-law. He encounters an eccentric and dangerous doctor, Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), whose greed has corrupted him, and a run-away slave Atua (David Gyasi) who transforms Adam’s view of slavery.
A third story line involves an investigative journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who uncovers an oil-industry plot to destabilize the nuclear power industry. Hugh Grant, again playing a baddie, is the head of the clandestine group, and Luisa is aided in her research by a shy scientist, Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks). This story line takes place in 1973.
You’re beginning to get the picture, right? The same actors appear, as different characters, in all of the stories. Remember: the over-all presentation of the various stories is not linear. The quick-cut is used throughout the film to jump from story to story. If this sounds confusing, it really isn’t. The abrupt transitions often spare the viewer from a scene or outcome that appears to be a little too intense. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to find out what happens in each segment. You’re just getting a little reprieve from the emotional tension.
The story lines aren’t all dead serious. A fourth vignette, set in 2012, brings some welcome humor. Jim Broadbent plays Timothy Cavendish, an unfortunate publisher who ends up in debt to some unsavory fellows and turns to his brother Denholme (Hugh Grant) for help. Instead, Timothy ends up locked up in an institution for the senile since Denholme is tired of bailing him out of trouble. In the course of trying to escape, Timothy reflects on his life and his regret at not staying with the love of life, Ursula ( Susan Sarandon). Timothy’s attempts to organize some of the other inmates who aren’t senile, either, and remembering his brief affair with Ursula are side-splittingly funny. I don’t want to reveal too much, but let’s just say that the most hilarious scene in the film involves a cat.
A much more melancholy segment involves a young would-be composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who leaves his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) to go to work transposing music for a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Robert has been working on the Cloud Atlas Sextet, based on a melody that came to him in a dream. The same melody had occurred to Ayrs, also in a dream, so you can presume that their collaboration will not end well.
The meatiest segment of the six, theme-wise anyway, is the story of freedom fighter Hae Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) and fabricant (clone) Sonmi-451(Doona Bae). In the 22nd century, Sonmi-451 and others like her were engineered to serve The Consumers by a gigantic fast-food conglomeration. With the help of Joo Chang, she escapes and discovers the “truth” which she reveals to all in a video memoir which will bring her doom. Never mind that the “truth” is a little bit vague – “your life is not your own”, “every being and action is connected”. You know you’re going to get a little bit of The Matrix in a film by the Wachowskis. You’ll also see echoes of Blade Runner and a couple of nods to Logan’s Run (1976) and Soylent Green (1973).
Cloud Atlas is long (172 minutes), but it seems to require every minute. The experience is definitely worth it. The film’s strength - and beauty -often comes from the sharp contrasts it draws between beauty and brutality, love and savagery, the sublime and the depraved. In Cloud Atlas, the very best and the very worst of what people can be flows through time in a Kharma-like river, and fortunately, the best prevails – if not in all the vignettes, at least in the end. It is a masterful piece of film-making.