Movie Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)
Every Hollywood movie believes in true love but only “Cloud Atlas” posits an explanation: reincarnation. We’re simply meeting someone we already knew in a previous life. The movie suggests a continuity from life to life, and an existential moral authority in which justice is meted out in this life or the next.
My thought throughout: Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Admittedly “Cloud Atlas” is ambitious and unconventional in its storytelling. It gives us six stories from six eras, with the same actors playing different roles in different eras. They, it is suggested, are the reincarnated souls. Thus:
- In the Pacific Islands in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is trying to get home to San Francisco and his wife, Tilda (Doona Bae), but doesn’t know he’s slowly being poisoned by his friend, Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks).
- In 1936, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), leaves his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), to become assistant to one of the world’s great composers, Vyvaan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), only to have his ideas stolen by the great man.
- In 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates a nuclear power plant run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), but all of her sources, including an aged Rufus Sixsmith (still D’Arcy) and Isaac Sachs (Hanks), wind up dead. Is she the next target?
- In 2012, a publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), owes royalties to a gangster-novelist, Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), so his brother (Grant) agrees to hide him in a hotel; but the place turns out to be an old folks home run military-style.
- In Neo Seoul in 2144, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a replicant waitron, born and bred for the purpose of serving the customer, is helped by a pureblood, Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), to ascend to greater knowledge and thus transform the world.
- In a post-apocalyptic future, “106 winters after the fall,” a superstitious islander, Zachry (Hanks), aids one of the last remnants of our technologically advanced civilization, Meronym (Berry) up a mountain peak in search of Cloud Atlas, an outpost and communication station, where she can contact humans living in space. For what purpose I never really understood. To make things better, I suppose.
Writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), and Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”), intercut these stories like an MTV video. They even offer an early, meta explanation for their method. As Cavendish writes his comic tale of escape, he talks up his general distaste for flashbacks and flashforwards but considers them necessary evils. He promises, “There’s a method to this madness.”
I can think of only one flashback in Cavendish’s tale (to his true love, of course), so the line is meant more for us than Cavendish’s imaginary readers. I found it either too cute or unnecessary handholding. I wasn’t confused by the cross-cutting. I was sadly unconfused. I got it all too quickly.
Each era leaves something behind: a story for the next generation. So the goddess worshipped in the far-flung future is Sonmi-451, whose escape was inspired, in part, by an old digital/film version of the memoirs of Cavendish, who publishes, or stupidly rejects (I forget which), a novel based upon the adventures of Luisa Ray, who reads the 1930s love letters between Sixsmith and Frobisher, the latter of whom, while collaborating on his Cloud Atlas Symphony, reads “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” We are bound to each other by our stories.
But this is the best, most poetic way to describe the movie’s philosophy. It’s what Sonmi-451 says to the unseen masses of her time:
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.
Sometimes this future is birthed in another lifetime. It’s karma. Broadbent’s character traps a man in one lifetime only to be trapped himself in another. Hanks’ character is corrupt first-worlder amid the island natives in 1849, then island native in a far-off future dealing with first-worlder Halle Berry (the incorruptible). When Berry and Hanks meet in 1973, he falls for her (easy to do) because he senses he already knows her (though, chronologically, their paths have yet to cross). When Berry and Whishaw, the proprietor of a 1970s record/head shop, listen, entranced, to a very rare 1930s recording of the “Cloud Atlas Symphony,” both feel they’ve heard it before. They have: he as composer, she as wife of corrupt collaborator.
More often, though, the future, and the karma, is birthed within one’s own lifetime. The kindness Ewing shows the escaped slave Autua (David Gyasi) is returned to him when Autua saves him from the machinations of Dr. Henry Goose. The kindness Cavendish and the others show by returning to save Mr. Meeks (Robert Fyfe) is returned to them when Meeks, finding his voice in a pub, rallies football hooligans to save them from Big Nurse (Hugo Weaving). Zachry twice saves Meronym’s life, despite a voodooish demon, Old Georgie (Weaving), whispering in his ear; and in the end, at the last moment, when all hope seems lost, she returns to save him and his daughter from marauding cannibals.
In fact, every story but one (maybe two) has a happy, Hollywood ending. Ewing, saved, returns to San Francisco, stands up to his father-in-law (Weaving), and becomes an abolitionist. Luisa Ray publishes her scoop about oil companies conspiring to create a nuclear disaster. Cavendish escapes the old folks’ home and is reunited with his true love (Susan Sarandon). Zachry and Meronym become husband and wife and perpetuate the species with children and grandchildren, to whom Zachry tells his tales around a campfire.
The two less-than-happy endings? In 2144, Sonmi-451 discovers that replicants, rather than “ascending” to a higher place, are killed, skinned, and served as food to the purebloods. “They feed us to us,” she says, stunned. This echoes similar sentiments in other eras. “The weak are meat and the strong do eat,” says Dr. Goose as he attempts to kill a weakened Ewing. “Soylent Green is people!” Cavendish shouts during his first failed attempt at escape. Plus the cannibals of the post-apocalyptic future. This fate awaits Sonmi-451, too. But first she gets word out to the masses. She changes the world. It would be more poignant, however, if we understood why Hae-Joo Chang saw her as “The One.” What is it with the Wachowskis and “The One” anyway? Can’t they get off that fucking horse? Can’t Hollywood? Can’t … all of us?
The other sad ending is from the 1930s, when Frobisher, the talented gay guy, for no good reason, kills himself. Someone alert Vito Russo.
But each story mostly builds toward happy endings; and the movie leaves us in the far-off future with humanity returned to its natural state: telling stories around campfires.
“Cloud Atlas” is, again, ambitious, and often beautiful. I think of Tykwer’s shots of Luisa Ray going over the bridge and into the water, then ascending. I was rarely bored. The nearly three-hour runtime went by like that. And a lot of the words, which come from David Mitchell’s novel, are just glorious.
But for all its unconventionality, each story, by itself, is utterly conventional, as is the connective tissue between the stories. “Cloud Atlas” takes our most unknowable questions, about life and love, and makes the answers obvious. In this way, it’s like almost every Hollywood movie ever made.