Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw
UK Release date: 22 February 2013
Certificate: 15 (172 mins)
‘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.’
This line, spoken by the character Sonmi-451 living in a futuristic Seoul, is the dominant sentiment behind Cloud Atlas, which weaves together six stories spread across time, as did David Mitchell’s 2004 book on which the film is based. In chronological order, they are the stories of: a young man in the 19th century making a journey across the Pacific Ocean; a struggling young composer in 1930s Edinburgh; an American journalist in the 1970s investigating a report which occasioned the murder of its author; a present day British publisher in a spot of bother; a 22nd century Korean waitress destined to change the world; and a man living on an island on post-Apocalyptic Earth.
Each story on its own is interesting and could have been made into a film in its own right, but the germs of six good stories are not enough. There is very little in the way of character development in any of the narratives, and it is difficult to develop and maintain an emotional attachment while constantly shifting between stories. The plot lines are fairly simple and, therefore, not difficult to follow across the nearly three hours that this film lasts, but without much to draw the viewers into the various stories apart from idle curiosity, watching the film becomes purely an intellectual exercise.
The greatest mental effort required by this film is in trying to work out why there are six different storylines. If six narratives are woven together in a single film, I don’t want to expend an inordinate amount of energy figuring out the connection between them. But, try as I might, I just can’t see it; unless it is the excessive, gratuitous, bloody violence worthy of Quentin Tarantino; or simply the fact that the same actors are recycled throughout the film.
So I return to Sonmi’s revelation about our interconnectedness. There are many sentiments and philosophies expressed verbally in Cloud Atlas, but as this is the only one repeated numerous times, I conclude that it expresses the dominant message of the film, though I fail to see how it is expressed significantly in any other way. The idea that we are all connected to one another is not particularly original, nor is the idea that we influence our future by the things we do today. Plenty of movies incorporate these ideas as a reflection of the reality in which we live. As a movie which has interconnectivity as its central theme, Fernando Mereilles’ recent 360 is rather more successful and thought-provoking.
What about the idea that we are connected not just to our contemporaries but also to those far removed from us in time? There are connections between the narratives, but none of them are sufficiently meaningful or significant for this to constitute Cloud Atlas’s unique contribution. That the main actors appear as characters in each of the stories might suggest that the film is about reincarnation, but there is nothing significant to connect the characters played by each actor. It might have been interesting, perhaps, to follow a single soul across multiple incarnations, but no one can be expected to keep track of eight actors across six different stories, especially when they are made almost unrecognisable at times by makeup and prosthetics (though this does explain why some of the ‘Koreans’ look so odd). For a film which has reincarnation as a dominant theme, viewers would be better off with Kenneth Branagh’s more straightforward and entertaining Dead Again.
Overall, Cloud Atlas comes across as having an unusual and intriguing approach to storytelling but with no substance behind it. If it can only get its point across by verbal repetition, it has already failed; but if even then a well-educated and perceptive viewer still cannot grasp the connections and the overall point of the film, it has failed utterly. With six mildly interesting stories and no coherent, cohesive theme, Cloud Atlas is a disappointment which cannot be saved even by its fine cast.
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