The ‘Cloud Atlas’ Sextet: a breakdown of how the six parts play out & a look at what’s worth an encore
Ambitious. That’s the word most critics are using to describe “Cloud Atlas” and as cliché as it might sound to use that word over and over, there really isn’t a more fitting word for the six-story epic spanning multiple eras.
So what exactly is the deal with this so-called ambitious film? “Cloud Atlas” is based in the David Mitchell novel of the same name and up until now, most had declared the novel unfilmable (some haters of the movie might still make that claim). The reason for this unfilmable status was that the novel consists of six different, but connected stories – each story existing within the previous story and much of these stories were framed with epistolary devices. In other words, it is a lot to take in and the connections aren’t typically things that are filmable. So to make it work for the big screen, the makers of “Cloud Atlas” took an unusual approach; they used the same actors for multiple characters, different crews for each of the different six stories and three directors (Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings) to tie the whole thing together. The use of the same actors in different roles is probably the factor that will stand out the most to viewing audiences. For one, it makes the movie seem to be making a statement in reincarnation – something that didn’t really exist in the book. Second, it put a bit of a strain on the actors. For example, one day Halle Berry might be called in to play a 70s era reporter, then the next day she was called in to play some post apocalypse being. Would the actors be able to give the same attention to details and delivery with the quick turnaround of their filming schedules? The answer is sort of. While the film works as a whole, there are definitely sections/stories/acting etc that stand out and others that fall short. Since this is such a big film project, I’m going to break out the different time period stories and give my assessment of their portrayal in the film. Warning this might get a bit spoilerly, so stop reading now to avoid spoilers.
“Cloud Atlas” timeline breakdown & review:
This isn’t the first story we’re presented visually, but it is the first chronologically. This story tells the tale of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young attorney of some fortune who goes to meet with a plantation owner (Hugh Grant) in the Pacific Islands. Ewing forms a bond with a slave, Autua – a revolutionary friendship for that era, but a vital one that ends up saving his life from the villainous Doctor (Tom Hanks) who is secretly feeding Ewing poison in an attempt to steal his fortune.
- Other Whos to Know: Donna Bae as Ewing’s wife, Hugo Weaving as Ewing’s racist father-in-law, Halle Berry as a plantation worker, Jim Broadbent as the ship captain.
- Connections to Catch: Bae and Sturgess are married in this storyline, but they also play a couple in the New Seoul storyline; however in that one, they are star-crossed lovers. Ewing has a comet birthmark (something that repeats in later timeline charactes). The journal he keeps is being read in the 1936 storyline by Jim Frobisher.
- The Verdict: This was one of the weaker stories. Tom Hanks, as much as I love him, is a little comical as a villain. It was also confusing to figure out the why Ewing’s trip even was happening in the first place. Then he falls sick so quickly that there wasn’t really enough time for the viewing audience to have grown to like him enough to actually care.
This storyline follows the handsome and charming Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw). Frobisher is an aspiring composer, telling his story through letters to his gay, long distance lover. As a composer in training, he is working for the manipulative, but genius composer Vyvyan Ayers (Jim Broadbent). Frobisher is where we first learn why the film is called “Cloud Atlas” as we see him working on his great masterpiece, the “Cloud Atlas” sextet (the sextet movements appear in each of the different stories throughout the film. The controlling Ayers tries to steal the sextet to claim as his own, threatening to out Frobisher and ruin his career. The rights to this musical expression leads Frobisher to one of this film’s more tragic endings.
- Other Whos to Know: Halle Berry plays Ayers’ wife and wow — there is some questionable makeup in this film and then some spectacular makeup. This one is spectacular as I didn’t recognize her until far later in the film. We also see Hanks, Weaving and Grant in minor roles.
- Connections to Catch: Frobisher has a comet birthmark. We also see him reading Ewing’s story in a book. His sextet is sought after and played in a record shop in the 1973 story after Berry’s character reads his letters to his lover. Also, Ayers hears the sextet in a dream about New Seoul and we hear it briefly there (and in the other storylines though less obviously).
- The Verdict: This is hands down my favorite story out of all of them. This one carried the most emotional weight. It had some amazing acting; Whishaw is one of the lesser known names going into the film, but he is going to be the actor everyone remembers. The makeup, the conflict, just everything was great about this story. If any of these stories had been in their own standalone film, this is the I one I would have liked to have seen as a feature length. I love how Frobisher and his lover are presented – never able to speak since they’re just flashback memories in the letters, making the way their scenes here are filmed give that tragic ending all the more weight. My only complaint – I wish the music had been more memorable for how much it was stressed to be important. The sextet was pretty, but for such an ‘important’ work, it was forgettable.
This is the thrilling, action-packed tale of journalist Luisa Rey (Berry). After getting stuck on an elevator with a troubled physicist, Rey starts to uncover some shady happenings at a local power plant and as she gets closer to the truth, she finds her life in greater danger.
- Other Whos to Know: Whishaw as a record store clerk, Weaving as a hitman, Hanks as the good doctor, and the seedy plant president is Hugh Grant.
- Connections to Catch: Luisa’s sporting the comet birthmark. The big connection here is that Luisa is reading Frobisher’s letters and seeks out his music (and she just so happens to encounter a record store clerk played by the same actor that played Frobisher). This is also one of the few connections where a character actually makes it from one story into the next since we get to see Frobisher’s lover as an old man. The power plant spheres are the same spheres we see in the New Seoul and post apocalypse timelines. Luisa’s story will appear as a book for publishing in Cavendish’s 2012 set story.
- The Verdict: I liked this one as there was a lot of action and it heavily connected to some of the other stories. Halle Berry really seemed to own her role here and make it stand out enough from her other lengthier parts in the film. I also loved the wisecracking kid sidekick. This was just a fun retro action thriller that worked surprisingly well as a frame for the romance of Frobisher’s tale. I especially loved that it was Whishaw who was playing the record store clerk playing Frobisher’s music. This was my favorite connection between stories.
- Other Whos to Know: Weaving as an awful nurse, Whishaw as Cavendish’s sister-in-law, Susan Sarandon as his past love, and Berry as a party guest.
- Connections to Catch: Cavendish has the comet birthmark. One of the stories he is working on is the tale of Luisa Rey. His story is seen as a comical video on a New Seoul monitor.
- The Verdict: I halfway loved this one. Of all the stories, this one changed the most from where it began to how it ended up. It almost seemed like two separate stories (the publisher gang vs the nursing home shenanigans), so having such a long and strange transition when you’re burying the story in a film of six stories, it got a little confusing. Also, while all the shenanigans here were hilarious, this story didn’t really seem to fit as well into the greater picture. It would have been better as a standalone film to accomplish all of its parts or to have some of it on the cutting room floor – like the flashbacks to Cavendish’s school age sweetheart; I’m sure we could have found a different way to show the comet birthmark. Also, I’m not sure if the makeup in this story was supposed to be bad as a joke since this was a comical tale or if this was one of the spots where the makeup team dropped the ball – Weaving’s and Grant’s makeup jobs were just silly.
- Other Whos to Know: Broadbent as a musician, Weaving as Boardman Mephi (a government agent), Berry as a doctor, Grant as a restaurant manager, and Hanks as Cavendish.
- Connections to Catch: Somni-451 sees a film of Cavendish’s adventures (but Hanks is Cavendish, not Broadbent), we see the comet birthmark, hear the sextet and the major set piece domes appear in the Luisa and post apocalypse stories.
- The Verdict: This story is given more attention than the others and there are some great action sequences with cool effects. The makeup on the guys is terrible and one of the more offensive transformations. As long as you can get past ‘yellowface’ though, this is one of the better stories and has a nice Romeo & Juliet tale hidden in a Matrix wrapper.
- Other Whos to Know: Sarandon as the village Abbess. Grant as the brutal, cannibal Koni leader. And Weaving as the guilty conscious voice plaguing Zachry.
- Connections to Catch: Zachry has the birthmark. The village is built on the remains of New Seoul and Zachry & Meronym find the video made made by Somni-451 telling her story. Cannibalism was also first introduced in the New Seoul story, but is more expanded as an issue in this time period. The sextet reappears as a chant.
- The Verdict: The accents/Jar Jar Binks-like language takes some adjusting and the demon thing haunting Zachry is weird after so many non-magical stories, but this is still one of the better fleshed out stories with some interesting makeup. I loved that we were really able to watch the emotional transformation of Zachry and see him become a brave, good man.
- Other Whos to Know: See above – Berry and Hanks are the two main ones left by the time of this story.
- Connections to Catch: The comet birthmark and the sextet reappear, but mostly this story is here to form an overarching framing device and is like a coda to the 2321 post apocalyptic storyline.
- The Verdict: This is the briefest story, but it works well as an overall framing device for the entire film. It also is nice to end with a happy ending (can you imagine if Frobisher had been the final scene?) that leaves the world open to countless possibilities.
So yeah, ambitious. I’m not sure how I feel about the reincarnation elements and some of the stories worked better than others, but still, there’s a lot to appreciate about this film as a whole. One of the more interesting themes this film explores is how individual lives impact another and how kindness (or hate) can ripple across time. Though I don’t buy Tom Hanks as a villain ever, I loved seeing that the characters he played started off as evil, but gradually became better beings until the last timeline story when the Hanks’ character made a conscious decision to be good. Of course, the other side to that are Grant’s characters, which start sleazy, but by the last timeline he is just a plain brute.
Give this film a try, but be prepared to do some work to keep up. This film gives you a lot to think about.