‘Cloud Atlas’: Find your way to it

October 22, 2012

David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” is a fascinating puzzle of a novel, with stories broken in half, then reassembled in a way that gives each added resonance and power.

It seems like an unfilmable book because of its construction (more on that in a moment). But Mitchell has met his equal in the teaming of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings (they were formerly the Wachowski brothers, until Larry transitioned to Lana) to create a film of “Cloud Atlas,” opening Friday (10/26/12). Together, they find their own way of reconfiguring the puzzle of these half-dozen tales, doing it in such a way to maintain their essential mystery while refocusing the way they resonate and echo each other – beyond the inclusion in each segment of a character who bears a birth mark in the shape of a comet.

Consider the various symbolic meanings of both the birthmark specifically and comets in general. Then take your choice: That little image can represent what you want it to. It’s just lagniappe, that little extra bit that goes with this fantastically stuffed film. There is so much going on here – emotionally, intellectually and metaphysically – that to focus on one small bit of it is to miss the bigger, much richer picture.

What is “Cloud Atlas” about? In various ways, it examines the nature of tyranny and the human instinct toward freedom. It is about the search for truth and the many obstacles that stand in the way of that search. It is about the pure joy of creativity – and the envy it can incite in other, less talented individuals.

And it is a look at the way man’s worst impulses forever push him toward disaster, even as his better instincts try to pull him back from the brink. Ultimately, there’s only so much a good person can do, this movie seems to say, so save yourself and hope to fight for what is right again in the next battle.

All of that, of course, is one critic’s extrapolation from a multi-tiered yarn that travels back and forth in time and around the globe. Many members of the wide-ranging cast of actors play more than one character, moving between stories to play dissimilar roles in different strands of the film.

Chronologically, the film starts with a young merchant banker (Jim Sturgess), who boards a ship somewhere in the South Pacific headed back to San Francisco to consummate a deal. But his encounters with the ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks), and a stowaway change his world – as does a parasite he picked up in the islands that sickens him on the voyage.

In 1930s’ London, a disinherited and financially strapped young composer (Ben Whishaw) hides from his creditors by escaping to rural Scotland. There, he becomes the amanuensis to an ailing composer (Jim Broadbent), too ill to write down his own music.

In the early 1970s outside San Francisco, a magazine reporter (Halle Berry) is given a scoop that may cost her life: a missing report showing that the scientists who studied the safety of a new nuclear power plant did not give it a clean bill of health after a safety inspection. In fact, their report describes the imminent dangers the reactor represents to the area.

In present-day England, a book publisher (Broadbent) for a vanity press has a best-seller on his hands – but must hide out from underworld thugs. He finds himself locked up in the Hotel California of old-age homes.

In the near future, a cloned drone (Doona Bae) in North Korea learns to think for herself. She escapes the bondage of her existence as a worker to lead a revolution of the forced laborers.

In the distant future, after an apparent world cataclysm, civilization on a small Pacific island amounts to a primitive hunter-gatherer society. At the mercy of the savage Kona people on the other side of the island, the island residents receive a visit from one of technologically advanced people (Berry) from the exterior world. She embeds herself in the home of Zachry (Hanks), a goat herd whose taste for heroism is undermined by his own personal devils.

Or devil: In one of the few literal-minded missteps of the film, the satanic figure who whispers in Zachry’s ear and tempts him – to be a coward, to be cruel – is played with cat-eyed malevolence by Hugo Weaving (who also pops up as a sea captain and as a female Big Nurse character). His voice alone could have gotten the point across, instead of putting an actual devil at the character’s shoulder to literally whisper in his ear.

Mitchell’s book started with the strand set in the 1800s, then offered half of each story, moving forward through time to the one in the most distant future. That last story is told in its entirety; the book then moves backward through time to each of the other stories, finishing them off in such a way that they not only connect to the stories before and after them, but reach a satisfying conclusion of their own.

The filmmakers, however, take a more fragmented approach. After introducing each of the storylines, they jump around more freely, telling each story in shorter bursts that echo something going on in one of the others. Tykwer directed half the story threads, the Wachowskis the others.

The structure essentially jumps between story segments, not chronologically, nor in any particular order. The stories are all different, yet their themes match up, like tumblers in a complex lock slowly spinning into alignment. What a character in one section says illustrates something happening to another character in a different plot, as they all struggle against forces larger than themselves.

Does “Cloud Atlas” make you work at understanding it? Indeed. In the age of apparently unstoppable attention-deficit-order, the film forces you to focus, to juggle several stories in your mind at one time and return to them as the film plugs back into that particular data stream for a few minutes. Stick with it – because each story pays off. And its pay-off builds on that of the other stories.

The actors (with the possible exception of Hugh Grant, who seems confined to smaller roles throughout) all get a chance to shine. Hanks gets the meaty role as the shepherd Zachry, who must accompany a visitor from beyond his primitive future island to the remains of an earlier, pre-cataclysmic time. Hanks also shows up as an eccentric 19th-century physician and a brutally violent British author, who finds a unique way to turn his novel into a best-seller.

Berry brings depth to the investigative journalist, who searches for the incriminating safety report and finds herself in danger as a result; she’s also good as the visitor from afar who helps the primitive Hanks in the distant future. Doona Bae brings touching soulfulness to the clone that joins the revolution. And Jim Broadbent is antically fast-talking as a perpetually down-on-his-luck publisher, but cheerfully dyspeptic as the dying composer, who inspires his assistant (Whishaw) to greatness, then claims it as his own.

“Cloud Atlas” is one of the year’s major achievements. This film blends strong storytelling with mind-tickling plots and characters who achieve a meteor shower of transcendent moments.

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