Review from 10/12/16
Initially confusing but ultimately an epic adventure through time, Cloud Atlas immerses the viewer in the lives of six seemingly unconnected characters to create a unique experience woven from the strands of several stories. It is perhaps best described as a compendium of individual but loosely linked films, each telling a fast-paced story evocative of its own era.
From the outset, we are given fleeting glimpses of each of these characters’ lives, establishing the film’s non-linear structure and introducing their situations. It is not easy to take in all this information in such a short space of time but this introduction does set up the film well.
Each of the central characters is forced to confront an issue of their time, eventually breaking out from the prisons (both literal and metaphorical) that society has placed them in. Adam Ewing’s (Jim Sturgess) adventure in the Pacific shows him assisting an escaped slave, eventually becoming an abolitionist and confronting the culture he was born into.
Ewing’s journal is discovered by Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) in 1930s England in a tragic romance about the persecution of gay people. The setting uses fewer bright colours, creating a Victorian atmosphere and revealing a society which has hardly progressed since that time. His partner, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is forced to run away to Edinburgh where he composes the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” – a monumental piece of music which is a central symbol throughout many of the stories.
In the 1970s, Sixsmith meets Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), introducing her to the “Cloud Atlas”. Her story is in the style of a gritty detective thriller, reflecting both the time it is set in and her story as a reporter working to expose the conspiracy behind a nuclear power plant. The setting uses warm colours to show the intensity of the action, and to mark the nuclear plant as a memorable setting which is revisited later. Although all the individual stories are concise, this one is particularly fast paced.
In contrast, Timothy Cavendish’s (Jim Broadbent) adventure is portrayed to the viewer as a comedy about his escape from a care home. However, it does tackle the current issue of the treatment of the elderly (reflecting its setting in 2012) and links to the common theme of imprisonment and escape.
This story is seen very differently by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) – a clone from the futuristic Korean city of Neo Souel who finds a video recording of “The Terrible Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”. The contrast of his bold, heroic character in the video with the reality of his blundering confusion show how the links between people can often be warped. Somni escapes from her imprisonment as a slave into an overly dramatic science-fiction landscape where she becomes a revolutionary figure.
The final story (chronologically) is set even further in the future, on a post-apocalyptic island. Zachry’s (Tom Hanks) quiet, tribal lifestyle is interrupted when Meronym (Halle Berry again) arrives to investigate the ruin of the nuclear plant. This leads to the awakening of fantastical spirits, forcing Zachry to flee from the Earth to a distant planet.
Overall, the film is a dramatic and impressive piece of cinema. The story is barely understandable yet just coherent enough to remain entertaining. The use of actors playing multiple parts is confusing and leads to some of the characters having less individuality. However, this is also important in reflecting the strength of the connections which run between them. This is also reinforced by the repetition of several key shots at different times, such as the train journeys of both Frobisher and Cavendish. The first and final shots of a starry sky also mirror each other, creating a sense of stability despite the changes brought by the passing of centuries.
Cloud Atlas is certainly impressive and ambitious but it is difficult to determine whether film is the right medium for this story or if more time is needed for the audience to become truly engaged with each plot. Somni-451 is described as “transcending convention” and this is certainly what this film does by converging many plots into an irregular and intriguing examination of the interconnectedness of our lives.