Atlas Sneezed: Epic Sci-Fi Flick Spans Eons of Space and Time with Overbearing Message
In what has to be one of the most anticipated directorial pairings of 2012 is that of the Wachowski Siblings with German auteur Tom Tykwer for their adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, which is perhaps one of the best mainstream sci-fi films to be made in some time. But that’s not to say the film isn’t without some marked flaws, all according to one’s taste. The end result does happen to be a daring extravaganza of images and themes, a film that asserts itself as worthy of repeated viewings, not only for its quality, but its generously expansive scope and theme.
A globetrotting, universe hopping, time traveling extravaganza, six different narrative threads are related, each with characters or souls that cross in and out of each other’s threads, some innately good, some evil, and some in the process of change. A 19th century voyage on the Pacific Ocean details a soon-to-be-abolitionist (Jim Sturges) who befriends a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) and has to contend with a dangerous doctor (Tom Hanks), writes a ship diary which intrigues an aspiring 1930’s composer (Ben Whishaw), who has just left behind a lover (James D’Arcy) to work with a retired genius composer (Jim Broadbent). When their working relationship sours over the younger composer’s creation of his Cloud Atlas sextet and ends tragically, his aged lover ends up in a whistle-blower scenario in 1970s California concerning a nuclear power conspiracy in which he is assisted by a scrappy journalist (Halle Berry). Broadbent also reappears in a 2012 set scenario as a greedy publisher, and then a dystopian future set in Neo Seoul sees the creation of a Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), who becomes a modern day prophet, while her teachings will inflect our most futuristic scenario concerning a post-apocalyptic tribe in Hawaii. What each segment highlights is that no matter the era or universe, human beings share the same experiences, the same struggles, hopes, trials and travails.
Most importantly, it is our kindnesses or our cruelties that birth our futures and the existence of those around us.
Kudos to the Wachowskis and Tykwer for managing to secure the gargantuan budget from independent financiers for this incredibly risky project. Their film deserves to be seen as an original narrative and cinematic feat. That said, their final product is not devoid of certain issues, but that may depend on what you’re willing to look past. Every now and then a story line falls into schmaltz (such as Broadbent stuck in a nursing home with Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes, a blocky, wannabe Nurse Ratchet caricature). Other blatantly obvious moments also makes the proceedings a little leaden, as if it can’t help but to beat us over the head with its kindness porn thematics.
The film looks amazing, and even those moments that may not sit quite right glide along quickly, and its running time of 163 minutes flows over us breathlessly. But the real predicament the film has would be your particular opinion concerning how it morphs all of its actors throughout the narrative, changing races and accents as fluidly as they do time and place. Halle Berry gets to be a white Jewish lady, Doona Bae a white tribal member, and, most distractingly, Jim Sturges gets an Asian makeover. Conversely, Tom Hanks gets several facial prosthetic makeovers, though he never gets to transcend the Hankness. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have a simple point to make, namely that our souls transcend all these earthly trappings, including man made racial hang-ups. Brilliant idea, it’s just too bad that more often than not, these transformations appear alien, distracting, and clearly, easy to catch (though an exception might be made for Halle Berry).
Cloud Atlas is a magnificently executed endeavor, but, perhaps the world at large isn’t ready for the loftier concepts the narrative preaches about equality, which is why some of the more mainstream trappings the film contains as a stab at giving it some mass consumer appeal only detracts from its overall merits. For a film that invents and succeeds with creating a futuristic tribal vernacular, it would have been better served if it could have more bravely challenged the language of cinema as well. One thing is for certain, Cloud Atlas is worthy of repeated viewings, and only proves that its three directors are bravely committed to giving us challenging and enjoyable works of art.
Reviewed on September 09 at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival – SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS Programme.