If you are the Wachowski Brothers* and you have produced three extremely popular Matrix movies, what do you do for an encore? The Matrix movies, perhaps the ultimate dystopian movie trilogy, developed a cult following and was a reasonably weighty philosophical treatise on the nature of reality as well. It’s a good bet that the Wachowski Brothers would not be directing any light comedies. They have their reputation to protect, which means they had to attempt to outdo their Matrix movies with an even deeper topic. Fortunately this time they chose to build on someone else’s work. This would be the book Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.
The trailer for the movie
Okay, go ahead and hit the restroom if you need to. Even film critic Roger Ebert gave up on connecting all the plot points. To really understand this movie thoroughly you will have to own it, and watch it repeatedly. And even then I am not sure you will still not be scratching your head. It’s perhaps the most imponderable movie since What the Bleep Do We Know? Thankfully, Cloud Atlas has a virtually all-star cast, but Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are the two main anchors of the movie. Both are fine actors but Hanks is the one really stretching as an actor. For Cloud Atlas is six movies for the price of one, and the directors constantly cut between story lines.
Essentially the movie is all about reincarnation: one soul traveling through multiple lives, generally with other souls they have interacted with in previous lives. The only twist here, doubtless done so we could at least attempt to keep it all straight, is that one soul may span multiple lives, but seems to have the same body. So we get Tom Hanks as the evil ship surgeon Dr. Henry Goose and much later as Zachry, a Hawaiian native in the 24th century living a primitive life in a dystopian future. (You knew I would get “dystopian” in there again, didn’t you? This is a Wachowski film, after all.) Sometimes these transitions seem to work, and sometimes they don’t. Where they don’t work very well is seeing Hugo Weaving in a dress playing Nurse Noakes, something I did not expect to see again from him. He will make you long for comfortable Nurse Ratchett.
It seems we are chasing the same demons and people in multiple lives, and our enemies and to some extent our loves follow us from life to life too. Progress into the light sure is a slow process, which is why it helps to reincarnate, and real progress seems only possible during periods of great stress. We progress through acts of human kindness, particularly the really daring ones.
The six stories all have compelling elements to them. But mixing them up into short snippets, while necessary for the plot, arguably detracts from the overall story. And yet despite all the inspired acting and directing, the underlying theme of this movie is not hard to discern. In fact, it is rammed repeatedly into your head, principally by Sonmi-451, a “fabricant” manufactured to serve people, and living in Neo-Seoul in 2144. If there is a pivotal character in this movie it is Sonmi-451, played by Bae Doona, certainly a fine if not mesmerizing actress. I won’t spoil the plot (since it is in the trailer) to tell you its great metaphysical lesson: we are all connected not just in this life but also in multiple lives.
Critics’ reactions so far have been to either like or loathe the movie. I find aspects to both like and loathe. What I loathe is its length. It reminded me a bit of Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s bloated attempt to prove he was a serious actor and director. The largely all star cast are also working hard to give their various parts their all, and it sometimes feels strained, such as Tom Hanks as the Hawaiian Zachry. There is also a sometimes unbearable heaviness and preachiness to the film.
What’s to love? There is the overall fine acting, not just by the main stars but also by various well known supporting actors including Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon and Jim Sturgess. Each of the six stories is well done, and Neo-Seoul is particularly well done, having a Blade Runner feel to it. It’s something of a rarity in cinema: a thinking person’s movie, even if its overall theme is easy to discern. I haven’t seen one of these in the theaters since Inception.
Alas, Cloud Atlas is not quite as good as Inception. Like Reds it reaches for the stratosphere. Nice try, but despite all the great acting I don’t think they quite made it. If you can deal with its ponderous nature and length, you will probably enjoy it despite these detractions.
3.2 on my 4-point scale.
* Okay, technically it’s the Wachowski siblings. Lana Wachowski identified herself as a transgender female, although she was born Laurence.