The American Heritage Dictionary defines a sextet as a musical composition for six instruments or six voices, and Cloud Atlas is the cinematic equivalent; six stories in six genres on the same theme forming one interlinking vision. The vision is ultimately a glorious, beautiful and mind-bending movie that would take multiple viewings to appreciate fully, and just like a good piece of classical music you’d want to experience it again.
The first genre is a story written in the style of a journal, which was a very common literary device in the 19th century in which it was set. An American lawyer named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) takes a trip from the South Pacific to conclude an important contract, and on his way back is struck down with a parasitic infection. He also discovers an escaped slave hiding near his quarters. The second story is a period drama set between the First and Second World Wars, and involve a bisexual young music student (Ben Whishaw, playing Robert Frobisher) who works for an aging composer (Jim Broadbent) in Scotland and begins to compose The Cloud Atlas Sextet. The third is a story of a young Hispanic reporter, Luisa Rey, (Halle Berry) from the 1970s discovering a brutal corporate conspiracy centered that could end in the death of thousands. The fourth present-day set story is about Timothy Cavendish, an aging vanity publisher (Jim Broadbent) who is gets a disproportionate comeuppance in a black caper comedy with several bizarre twists. The fifth story is about Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), an artificial human who is given the opportunity to live and grow like a human being, with unexpectedly dire consequences. Finally there is the story of Zachry (Tom Hanks), a hunter-gatherer in a post-apocalyptic Pacific Island who meets Meronym (Halle Berry), scientist from the last technological vestiges of the civilization that destroyed earth. She asks Zachry to guide her to a temple (called the Cloud Atlas) where salvation for the remnants of humanity wait. But Zachary is haunted (literally) by guilt in the form of Old Georgy, his society’s equivalent of Satan, and may be close to losing his mind.
Despite what some have say this movie is not so hard to follow; it flips between stories and genres but it never confuses the time-line of each story too much. The jumps are only distracting if you allow it to be. They are all more or less chronological, though the Sonmi-451 story is a little more jumpy than the rest. Close to three hours long the movie gave my brain a workout like its never experienced in a film before. It attempts to touch you mentally and emotionally, and dares to create a world for each of these stories to operate in. Each story influnces each other in direct or indirect ways, and all share the same pattern. Beginning, Build, Setback, Epiphany and Conclusion. Each of the characters have something holding them from growing in different stages and forms, and in each story there is a censor, all played by Hugo Weaving, who wishes to push down his own world view on others (though in one story his role is interestingly the one of victim instead of the central characters). The only role that always remain similar is Hugh Grant, who is always a villain of some sort, ranging from pro-slavery intellectual to a savage cannibal.
Ironically the movie’s biggest liability is its excellent cast. It gets disconcerting to see Tom Hanks shuffle between Cockney hotelier, nuclear physicist and British actor playing Jim Broadbent’s character in a 22nd century movie (you read that right), while Halle Berry plays a Jewish-American socialite, a glimpsed slave and a futuristic scientist. More jarring is the Caucasian actors playing non-Caucasians, and vice versa, as Doona Bae plays Adam Ewing’s Upperclass American fiancé. I can go on. The most jarring is the males who play females (and vice versa). This is the only thing that strains the credibility of the movie to the point where it might break for some, and whether or not you’re willing to put up with this is incredibly individual.
It is impossible to discuss this movie without going into spoiler territory, but if you manage to get into it then this movie will touch and overwhelm you. With this film the Wachowski’s (as well as their co-director, Tom Twyker, who does not always get his share of credit on this film) show that they still are cutting edge filmmakers who have the ability to take chances with the medium and stick with their difficult choices. Cloud Atlas tanked at the box-office, but I am sure it will have a long life on DVD, Blu Ray and on demand. Longer than Matrix Revolutions certainly will.
Please Note: Cloud Atlas contains adult themes.
For an interesting read and help to understanding Cloud Atlas there’s an article called Six Keys to Cloud Atlas, written by Omer M Mozaffar, a Muslim scholar and die-hard film fan. My use of the word censor describing Weaving’s character is drawn from that article.