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Zimbio Review - Ambitious 'Cloud Atlas' is Almost Great

(Warner Brothers | Getty Images)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Despite a few missteps, Cloud Atlas is an original, ambitious piece of filmmaking.
In David Mitchell's book, Cloud Atlas, six separate tales are told across time. The book is eloquent in its descriptions of legions of characters, each pervaded by a unifying spirit which transcends the boundaries that separate us by gender, class, and race. Regarded by many as "unfilmable," the novel was adapted by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. Veteran filmmakers who've done their best to capture the essence of the novel by casting the same actors across each separate story. Lost in the film is the book's biggest strength: The unique language and feel of each story. That said, Tykwer and the Wachowski's movie is a testament to the ambition and challenge of trying to adapt a seminal novel. The film doesn't always work, but when it does, it's incredibly beautiful.

In Cloud Atlas, Tom Hanks has six roles, but most of his screen time is devoted to Zachry, a tribesman living in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Early in life, Zachry witnesses horror and does nothing to prevent it. He's a coward and is haunted by a demon who serves as the evil part of his conscience. Near the end of the film, Zachry is given a chance at redemption, and in this moment, everything Cloud Atlas wants you to feel is onscreen. Not only is Zachry's redemption apparent, but so too are all his previous lives, as his emotions come rushing to the surface. All at once, we see the character's bravery, his hesitation at the prospect of committing violence, and his relief that his life has come to this moment, despite his desires. Presented with his fate, Zachry's spirit overcomes his fears. It's a moment of human triumph.

Zachry's story is the heart of Cloud Atlas, a film that attempts to portray the human spirit as a character itself. To allow the audience to follow along, the film places the same actors within its six different stories despite race or gender, in order to create a cohesive narrative that spans centuries. The notion is profound, but intensely hard to pull off. While the film succeeds overall, there are some unavoidable missteps along the way.

What took me out of the film the most was the makeup. I can buy Hugo Weaving as a female orderly who looks like an extremely over-Botoxed version of Nurse Ratched, but Weaving, Hugh D'Arcy, and Jim Sturgess as Korean men is disorienting to say the least. Burdened with heavy forehead and eye makeup, the Caucasian actors look like something out of Star Trek. It's noble the directors wanted to stay true to the novel's universal themes, but it has to look right. To lose itself within the reality of the film, the audience can't be distracted by such details. Although, I will admit it's great fun seeing Weaving in drag and as a green demon, Hugh Grant as a ruthless cannibal, and Halle Berry and Susan Sarandon as decrepit tribal women.

Likewise, the film attempts to transfer the language of the novel's "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After" chapter which uses a kind of pigeon-English as a tribal dialect. It's incredibly hard to understand in the film, and doesn't do much to further the sequences. Its inclusion is a mistake.

These details aside, Cloud Atlas works as a meticulously constructed narrative of the six stories. The directors chose to deconstruct the novel's chapters into a million pieces and the feat is astounding and sure to garner Academy Award consideration for Best Editing. In the beginning, the film presents each time period quickly and, as the film progresses, they get longer. The audience has time to catch up and lose itself in the storytelling.

As for the stories themselves, they include:
  1. Zachry's odyssey of courage in a near-future tribal society.
  2. A distant future set in Korea that follows Sonmi-451, a "fabricant" who is liberated from a life of labor and discovers love.
  3. A story set at sea in the 18th century dealing in greed, deception, and devotion.
  4. The tale of a young piano prodigy studying with a master who blackmails him.
  5. The "Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," a publisher who's committed to an elderly care facility against his will.
  6. Set in the 1970s, the story of a journalist who uncovers an evil plan of a giant corporation.

The six stories and settings are crowded together so seamlessly, the film's 172-minute running time seems much shorter. Action happens swiftly, and, although certain sequences put others to shame, the film's few narrative weaknesses don't subvert the entire piece. If anything they become a kind of intermission that enhances the following sequence. Traveling from 19th century Britain to Neo-Seoul is a strange and hugely fun transition. Once you're used to the scratchy grain of the high seas, you're suddenly whisked away to the immaculate streamlined world of the future.

The stories themselves are unrelated, but the lives within them are. Actions of a character in the past comes to the forefront of a character in the present, as in Zachry's case. The film isn't subtle about its existential message. Lines like— "The world spins on the same unseen forces that move our hearts." —are meant to convey the big picture in an instant. Despite shortcuts like this, there's a visceral understanding that ripples through the entire film. Throughout time, the duality of man permeates society and breaks down our man-made boundaries. Hugely ambitious in its conception and execution, Cloud Atlas is a feat of modern movie-making, even if it's an imperfect one.

See more photos of Halle Berry here:
  • Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas" Premiere
  • Halle Berry in Tom Hanks seen arriving to the Hollywood premiere of new film 'Cloud Atlas' held at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles
  • Halle Berry in Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures&squot; "Cloud Atlas" - Red Carpet
  • Halle Berry in Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures&squot; "Cloud Atlas" - Arrivals
  • Halle Berry in Halle Berry, making a statement with her "Happy is the new black" sweater, makes a stop at Bristol Farms for some groceries in Los Angeles
  • Halle Berry in Halle Berry and Daughter Nahla Out in LA
  • Halle Berry in Halle Berry Leaving A Doctors Office
  • Halle Berry in Halle Berry Grocery Shops in LA
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