"Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible?"There's a line in Cameron Crowe's Oscar-winning classic Jerry Maguire where his lead female character, Dorothy, proclaims that she loves her beau Jerry "for the man he wants to be, and for the man he almost is." That's how it is with director Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis' latest film, Cloud Atlas.
With the same exasperated tone Dorothy had when she breathlessly admitted her love for Jerry, and with just as much bewilderment spilling out of her voice, audiences will fall for Cloud Atlas' beautiful cinematography and melt-in-your-mouth dialogue while it astounds them at the same time. They hastily follow the fractured storyline as it swiftly moves from one character to the next (often played by the same actor), one era to the next (from an 1849 voyage across the Pacific to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii and Korea) and from one tone to the next. And they love it for what's it's trying to show--how our past, present and future lives impact one another. But does it actually show that? Yes, but in a way that is frustrating in some areas.
For instance, Tom Hanks plays a disgruntled writer, a sea-bound thief, a lonely scientist and Zachry, a futuristic tribal family man (to name a few) fighting off his own demons. His characters spend most their time fleeing from danger. But as much strife each he endures, his characters never really elicit any empathy from the audience. Not because of the story, but because they never have enough time with any of them, or they never seem to really go anywhere special.
Same goes for Halle Berry's characters: an aristocratic white woman, Luisa May, a 70s journalist investigating a murder at a nuclear power plant and a barely comprehensible tribal healer all seem to be in a desperate search for the truth (except the aristocrat, who only appears to use her beauty to sustain her existence--that was a disconnect, in a film that thrived on its connections). You see where her characters are related, but they are merely ornaments in a largely decorated story dominated by more subtle yet far more profound parts.
Where Hanks and Berry carry the bulk of the film's more elegant scenes, it is supporting actors Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw and James D'Arcy who really capture the audience's attention. Whishaw's portrayal of a tortured artist--Robert Frobisher, a young music composer fighting for a voice in the 19th century--orchestrates the emotion of most the film in a very gentle way. He, along with D'Arcy and Bae's myriad alter egos (which include a whistle-blowing nuclear physicist and a Korean freedom fighter), uproots the film from its menial position as a cliched existential showcase to a heart-tugging drama.
Those smaller stories are the ones you wish could have spent more time with. Faced with the daunting task of bringing all these stories--six, in total--to life, The Wachoswkis had to find a way to neatly interweave each story so that it made sense for the audience, which was done respectfully enough while the audience was still left to piece together elements of the story long after the ending credits rolled up the screen.
Rather than a nearly three-hour running time, perhaps it might have been better and more seamless to break up the movie up into two or three parts so that the audience can follow along with each character's journey. Even though the Wachowskis' don't have the best trilogy record with The Matrix (even though that too was a respectable franchise, yet its sequels were overwhelmingly panned by critics), Cloud Atlas might have been better handled given the juggernaut tale.
With that aside, Bae (a native Korean actress in her first major American film) commands the screen in a nuanced performance of a Somni-451, freedom fighter in post-apocalyptic Korea and ends up stealing the show. Even in a smaller role as a Mexican woman protecting her pup makes the audience cheer. She envelopes a state of fear, oppression, and later vengeance and power. It was this portrayal of Sonmi-451 that underscores the movie, and creates a perfect parallel to Sturgess, who plays Hae Joo-Chang, her confidante in Korea (and who we later see as a more reluctant freedom fighter on board a ship in a past century). This is a movie in and of itself.
Meanwhile, Broadbent's characters help bring home the themes of confinement, in a rather goofy yet good-natured way that only an actor like him could pull off. A hardly recognizable Hugh Grant and The Matrix alum and chameleon Hugo Weaving embody the fantastical journey of the movie in a contrast of entertaining and suspenseful scenes.
But it is understandable, given author David Mitchell's source material, that the filmmakers wanted to keep this as one pretty and extensive package at which the audience can gawk, pick apart and debate. And if you're familiar with their work, you'd know that a safe linear story just doesn't quite suit them. They continue to push the boundary of perception, science, knowledge, and religion in a way that is neither offensive or smug. There are few filmmakers who would attempt this race and gender-bending, time-shifting, long-winded project without it coming all the way apart at the seams.
Balancing an emotional drama with an Avatar-meets-The Matrix glaze, Cloud Atlas is a film worth talking about and debating as much as it is one at which to smile. There are certainly a few head-scratching scenes (like Sturgess and Whishaw randomly annihilating porcelain items), which take the audience outside of the story, but the film overall is admirable in its attempt to build a story that's capsulated by various movable parts that signify themes of love, survival, truth and calamity. It urges, no demands, a second viewing.