Cloud Atlas

JMM: Cloud Atlas. What a peculiar title. What does it mean? In all likelihood, it means something different to each of us because in the vernacular of the film itself we are all connected yet at the same time we are all separate.


To see this film is a trip into history as well as a lengthy look into the future. But that is kind of a simplistic overview. So today, I’ve asked reader FD to join me for a discussion of this film. On that note I’ll invite FD to kick this off with an opening statement.

FD:  According to Wikipedia, a Cloud Atlas is a guidebook for identifying the different types of clouds (e.g., cirrus, cumulus, stratus, etc.).  David Mitchell , author of the novel upon which the movie is based, says the “Atlas” part refers to things in life that remain constant; “Cloud” refers to what can change. In other words, “Atlas” is existence and “Cloud” is the soul.

He took the title from a piece of music by Toshi Ichiyanagi, who was once married to Yoko Ono. So this is a story of continuous existence,  how some part of us may survive even after death.  And the tagline, “Everything is Connected”  implies the cause and the effect of each life that a soul experiences.

JMM: The above statements were written by each of us before either of us had seen the film. Now that we have both seen the film – we have a bit more solid footing. It is my view that film cannot be easily described or explained. Having said that I will quote two speeches made in the film:

The first is by Tom Hanks (as Dr. Henry Goose): Fear, belief, and love are phenomena that determine the course of our lives. These forces began long before we were born and continue long after we perish.

The other is voiced by Susan Sarandon (as The Abbess): 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.

Would you agree that these statements – even out of context – are at the heart of the film, and go a long way to describe the film’s main theme?

FD:  First off, I want to go out of my way to agree with you that this is a very unusual movie and certainly not easy to describe or explain. And it’s certainly not an easy movie to review. In fact at one point in the film, the book publisher Timothy Cavendish played by Jim Broadbent says to  author Dermot Hoggins, played by Tom Hanks, “Come now – what’s a reviewer? One who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely.”

On the left – Timothy Cavendish played by Jim Broadbent. On the right Dermot Hoggins, played by Tom Hanks

JMM: [interrupting] Here is the review that led Mr. Hoggins to give his reviewer, a Mr. Finch an award of ‘free flight’:

None-hit wonders like Mr. Hoggins are the road kills of modern letters. Mr. Hoggins should apologize to the trees felled for his bloated ‘autobio-novel’. Four hundred vainglorious pages expire in an ending flat and inane quite beyond belief.

FD: I think our responses to this movie are mainly based on what we think a movie ought to be. For example, if you like a movie that tells a story, Cloud Atlas may confound you because it tells a great many stories. If you think a movie must run under two hours, Cloud Atlas may exhaust you  (it runs about 2 hours and 40 minutes). On the other hand, if you like to immerse yourself in the world of the movie, Cloud Atlas will  steal your heart as no other movie this year.

The film is full of beautiful quotes pulled  from Mitchell’s novel and Sarandon’s quote, which is echoed by the other major characters, expresses the core idea of the movie.

JMM: That was Hanks as a Cockney gangster as the author who did not take literary criticism lightly. In fact, that particular critic was silenced once and for all. I am in slight disagreement with your last remark about immersing one’s self in the world of the movie. What I mean is that film spanned over 5 centuries – so the worlds kept changing.

It was beautifully captured yes. But it was hard to grow attached because as soon as you did – they’d toss in a change. I guess that  structuring was problematic for me in the first hour. How about you?

David Gyasi as Autua – the stowaway former slave

FD:  Ah yes, the structure. How do you tell the story of six different people who live on different continents (as well as different planets) over the course of five centuries? In the book, the stories are nested, each character finds a document that tells the story that precedes his story.  In the film, the stories are interwoven with the action moving instantaneously from the mutinous stowaway slave Autua (David Gyasi) aboard a merchant ship sailing the Pacific in 1849, to the fabricant clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), who leads an uprising  against humans in Neo Seoul in the year 2144.  This is definitely not your father’s Hollywood epic. Cleopatra would be a barely noticeable extra in Cloud Atlas!

Doona Bae as thethe fabricant Sonmi-451

Given the huge expanse of time, place, characters, plotlines, and unifying theme, I felt the structure was brilliantly conceived and magnificently edited. Two Oscars should be reserved in advance (screenplay and editing). When you caught on one hour in, did you get caught up? Which story captured you?

JMM: But it wasn’t the editing or the structure that was brilliantly conceived. It was the original novel. Many folks said that the book was un-filmable. Well they applied their own design in the telling of the stories and I believe that this structuring or maybe I should say the decision to weave the stories is the film’s main flaw. You may have liked the design or the thought of it – but the jumps seemed arbitrary meaning there didn’t seem to be appropriate reasons to leave one segment and go the next. Yes, I agree that the visual editing was supremely done – but at the expense of continuity and narrative.

Tom Hanks as Zachry the goat-herd

Of the stories I liked all of them – I thought the least likeable one was the 1973 setting of San Francisco. The one I like best was the one with the most action – this was the one with Hanks as the goat-herd. Which one do you fancy?

Halle Berry as Zachry’s companion, and ally – Meronym

FD:  I also enjoyed all of the stories and it didn’t bother me a whit that the action kept leaping in sudden and unexpected ways. As a matter of fact I think the rapid cutting geographically as well forward and backward in time was what made this movie really amazing to watch.

Instead of being two steps ahead of the story, I never knew what would happen next. In addition to being kept off-balance, the directors (Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski) played with my emotions like virtuoso musicians.

And that’s one of the key points, I want to remake.This is not a linear story. It doesn’t follow a single protagonist  through a familiar character arc. The six stories appear to happen simultaneously. There are no flashbacks or flash forwards.

 Soft and Tranquil

The movie feels like a symphony with six motifs or themes that keep streaming in and out of your head.  And stunning visuals that drift past like clouds, sometimes soft and tranquil, but frequently dark and foreboding. Overall, I was surprised by how dark this movie is. Parents beware, frightening images abound. Murder, suicide, and terrible acts of cruelty almost outnumber the acts of kindness.

Dark and Foreboding

Other than the difficult structure, what about Cloud Atlas impressed you? What about the technical aspects, camera work, sound editing, costumes, and makeup? What about Halle Berry portraying a white woman (below) as well as a man? Did that work for you?

That’s Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs

JMM: The make-up was quite amazing (much of the time) that in the sense sometimes it took me awhile to recognize the actors beneath. For example,  with the roles of Hugh Grant – he seemed to be an exaggerated big man at times (below) – particularly

Yes, that muscular fellow is Hugh Grant as the evil San Francisco Corporate bad-guy Lloyd Hooks

in the San Francisco segment. At other times – the make-up was so good that I didn’t recognize him – as the Korean Seer Rhee, for one, and also he was the Kona Chief (below) and I didn’t recognize him at all. In fact I was surprised to see that he had that role.  However,  I immediately made him as Denholme Cavendish and at the same time, I thought that particular piece of make-up was too obvious.

Hugh Grant is in there somewhere beneath the ‘artwork’

Speaking of Halle Berry – she also portrayed an Indian woman.

This is Hugo Weaving – he’s not Agent Smith this time, but he is still evil. In fact Weaving plays 6 characters – and they’re all bad guys.

But to respond to the question – the film could be Oscar-worthy for make-up, check out Hugo Weaving as a devil of a guy above – but I also believe that the multi-role concept was often too obvious and may have even detracted from the narratives – linear or otherwise. You’d see a role – like Hanks as the Cockney gangster Dermot Hoggins – and while you studied the face and listened to the accent – you are taken out of the story – even if only for a few moments.

Back to Berry – as Jocasta Ayrs – it brings up the question of does this add anything to the story. And I’d say no. It does add to the allure of the technical virtuosity – but others have said that aspect is ‘gimmicky’.

Of the other technical aspects – I have to give major kudos to whom ever devised that concept with the top sail coming down on the voyage from the Pacific Islands. And I loved that line said by Broadbent as the Captain – the one that went something like – I guess we have a new crew member.

I do have a question for you about the sound – now I know that in the story with Hanks as the goat-herd and Berry as the advisor used something of a new language – but I also had trouble hearing some of the words. Were you bothered by this?

FD:  First I thought the sound was among the best of any movie I’ve watched (I saw it in an IMAX theater). Magically, a piece of music or a line of dialog, seemed to effortlessly  migrate from a Victorian dining room to a futuristic Korean restaurant.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet motif not only knitted the characters stories together, it formed the perfect link for connecting their past, present and future lives.

And  since film is primarily a visual experience, I understood the action even when the dialects were rich and strange to my ears. Again, the film is more like music which you can enjoy even without hearing each specific instrument and note.

As for the make-up, since the movie revolves around the concept of reincarnation, I think using different actors to portray the same soul would have been far more confusing. I thought using the same actor to portray portions of a soul’s journey was another smart choice that worked extremely well. Instead of trying to guess who was behind the makeup, I enjoyed the opportunities this afforded the actors.

I thought the casting choices were integrated and necessary to the story. Going all the way back to Shakespeare, actors have demonstrated their ability to switch gender. And the fact that one of the directors who is transgender is dramatizing how people react to similarities and differences (skin color, gender, sexual preference, race, age, cloning, etc.) is an idea that elevates this movie. The action, the violence, the hatred, is more intelligently exploited than in most other screen epics.

But, we haven’t talked enough about what this movie is about. I thought it worked wonderfully as a straight-out action adventure story as well as a serious sci-fi drama (much like the Wachowski’s earlier groundbreaking, The Matrix). Did the movie work for you on either of these levels?

JMM: Yes the action adventure worked for me most of the time – especially the chase scenes. I liked the bridge sequence in the Neo-Seoul part, and I liked the chase sequence when Hanks’s goatherd and Berry were fleeing from the marauding horseman. Hiding beneath the small bridge was reminiscent of the hobbits hiding from the riders in Lord of the Rings.

I didn’t much care for the sequence when Berry’s car was rammed in San Francisco. I also believe the ultimate shootout/warfare in Neo-Seoul was nothing special. With the exception of the flying machines which were very cool.

As for the sci-fi drama – the mattes and the sets in the futuristic ‘Seoul’ were inspired. But the ‘about’ part is much more sketchy. The stories linked but were really just replays of – as you described – violence and hatred – and the one word you didn’t use – greed. The stories shifted between eras and locales but were really just a re-imagining of the same story.

I liked the surprise of the end location, which was also the opening location. SPOILER WARNING:

I was completely taken by surprise when one of the small children who were listening to the sage and ultra-wise old man (Grampy – played by Tom Hanks) spin his stories – asked him while pointing to the sky  and the stars and planets, which one is Earth?

That seemingly came out of nowhere. It seemed a fit ending for the film. Which leads me to say the hardest thing about the film is to describe what it is about. That would seem to change with each person you ask. For example is it about reincarnation, the journeys of souls, rebellion, or is it about the end of the earth as we know it?

That’s Tom Hanks as the Hotel Desk Clerk

FD: As we near the end of the movie,  or the end of our lives,  what’s the answer to the question “What was it about?” Is the answer the same or is it different for each of us?

Is a movie a story, a puzzle, a dream, a symphony, a magic show?  Whatever we expect when we buy our tickets is probably what we take home when the show is over.

Cloud Atlas asks us to think about how we live our lives and  how we treat others who share our time and place. This is a high concept, but  is also ponderable question.

Is the movie too long? Did Mozart use too many notes?

Like a life, a movie is created before we see it and stimulates people’s imaginations long after we’re  gone. In a screenplay filled with so many great quotes to ponder, I liked the fabricant’s response when she was asked if she thought anyone would ever believe her story.

Somni-451: “Someone already does.”

As a kind of postscript I tossed a last query at FD – his response and my question follow. I  offer hearty thanks and appreciation to FD for his collaboration in discussing this important film.

JMM: I believe that the values that you took from the film are different from mine, and different from everyone that might read this. This is not a bad thing, instead I rather think it is what we might describe as being a good thing.

But your rapture on seeing the film leaves me and requires me to ask if there was anything about the film that you thought was weak, or could be improved, or that you didn’t like?

FD: In my opinion, this is a great film. Picking out a weakness in Hamlet is possible, but Shakespeare is still one of the best writers in the English language. If I don’t like a mediocre movie, I’ll tell you why. If I have to labor to make critical points about an awesome artistic achievement, who benefits?  People need to see movies like Cloud Atlas and judge for themselves.

I hope discussing the movie with you today may cause someone else to go and see it.  Maybe even my wife! That would be a better world!

JMM: Check out the trailer – and play it at HD quality 720/1080 and full screen if possible.

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