TIFF 2012 Review: Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas is the best least-commercial movie we’ll see for years. I am for one impressed that it got made even as a prestige project. Then also, I am impressed that it really is good enough to warrant taking the risk, just so that it can exist for however few or many people end up appreciating it.

So this book was already apparently considered unadaptable, and now I’m supposed to summarize the plot in a capsule paragraph? Cloud Atlas is a series of connected stories covering vastly different time periods, starring the same actors in each story. I don’t feel it actually matters what the stories are or how they connect. They do, but this is very much about the experience, not whether or not Tom Hanks saves the day.

An amanuensis (Ben Wishaw, and good word!) transcribes a composer’s symphony in the ‘30s. A passenger (Jim Sturges) on a 19th century ocean ship discovers a stowaway. A journalist (Halle Berry) in 1979 uncovers a nuclear power plant conspiracy. A British book publisher (Jim Broadbent) in present day becomes successful thanks to a rowdy cockney author (Tom Hanks) and then finds himself in debt. A robot server (Doona Bae) in the future becomes sentient and escapes. And in some ambiguous time, a father (also Hanks) in a jungle tribe helps a spaceship visitor (also Berry) climb the devil’s mountain.

So it’s one thing to tell multi-narrative stories. It’s quite another to combine genres that together have such a limited audience, and little crossover. The people who like one thing won’t like another, and when you combine them all together it takes a really devoted open-minded film lover to explore it. That’s who Cloud Atlas is for, but I don’t want to exclude anyone. If you like future sci-fi, period piece costume drama, ‘70s conspiracy thriller, British manners comedy or tribal primitive techno-fantasy, come along for the whole ride. Yeah, the last one might be the toughest sell. They even speak with some future Slanglish, so if it wasn’t a tough enough sell, you might not understand the words either.

The filmmakers (Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer) do a brilliant job introducing each of the stories. It may seem like a series of vignettes at first, but once each story is established, there’s real momentum to each one and it’s relentless. The editing balances each one with a fine pace, so I even liked the cross cutting, a technique I usually hate but it serves this one. I was just as wrapped up in the server’s futuristic breakout as the reporter’s escape from modern danger as the editor’s escape from a retirement home as the climb up the devil’s mountain. It’s breathless.

I don’t know if it matters that the same actors appear in each story, but it’s awesome. Why not have fun with this sprawling a story? Otherwise you have a cast with 30 leading actors. I truly didn’t recognize many of them until the end credits showed each character each actor played, revealing how truly monumental the transformations were.

Perhaps most revealing is that there can be so little connection between the same actor in a different role, rather than providing a throughline. Hanks’ author character seems a lark to reward him for being so serious in the other stories. Hugh Grant is really only recognizable once as the corrupt nuclear exec in the 1979 story. I couldn’t believe who he played in the tribal future story. Hugo Weaving seems to end up a villain in most of the stories, but he’s awesome. Sturridge, Wishaw and Broadbent often show up in funny supporting roles, and Bae changes ethnicities in one role.

These stories do connect and some superficial, though elegant, connections are apparent on first viewing. I’m going to need more study to really see how the sea ship and composer really impact the tribal future devil. I’m sure it’s there, but I honestly don’t care what it is. The experience of taking it all in is wonderful and I’m an experience guy. I look forward to revisiting it again though.

It’s beautifully filmed, no surprise. It’s just so uncommercial, I think we should be grateful that Warner Brothers let this movie exist. They took some of that Harry Potter money and did right by cineastes. I mean, even with any acclaim and Oscar nominations, this takes balls. Just look what I described above. This movie is coming out in American movie theaters!