Film Review: Cloud Atlas (2012)

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Release date: 26 Oct 2012 (US) / 22nd Feb 2013 (UK)

Director: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski

Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
- Sonmi-451

Our first film review this year is for a film which I very nearly passed by. I was aware that the 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell had been a success amongst scifi readers (and the literary world in general) but was cynical about a film adaptation, believing it would be messy, convoluted and confusing. If I left the review there, it would be pretty accurate, but in retrospect it has made more of an impact on me than I initially thought.

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The official synopsis quite mechanically starts “Cloud Atlas explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, the present and the future.” Again, it’s tempting to leave the review there, but I would be lying if I said this film doesn’t make it far enough into that sweet spot between an impressive cast, a good score, great visuals and my naive belief in humanity to be a satisfying experience. Whereas this film plays on some difficult to swallow cliches and has makeup which is hardly becoming of a $100million production, it’s not the standard type of bad which has become acceptable in mainstream films of other genres and the strong backbone of a solid, well-written story holds it up.

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Of the six interwoven story lines, the most interesting is set in “Neo Seoul” in 2144. From the name of the city, we could assume the people here are futuristic South Koreans, although most of them speak with British and American accents. Thought-provoking statement about multiculturism, colonialism and political change, or an ignorant Hollywoodisation? In many ways the entire film could be summed up by that sentence – it seems to depend on viewers not quite being sure if many of the aspects really are as ridiculous as they seem, whilst leaving vague hints that more thought has gone into them than is initially obvious. The 2144 timeline introduces some impressive Cyberpunk-style eye candy with a city that looks like the Tron universe manifested in the physical world, steaming megastructure processing plants and cold claustrophobic detention centres. Whereas the computer generated city may be too video game-like for some, the interior sets and Wachowski-trademark action sequences are stylish and gritty at the same time.

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Unfortunately though, the Neo Seoul scenes also contain most of the examples of the film’s awful makeup. It’s like a bizarre attempt has been made to “Asian-up” actors of other races by putting a slanted layer of latex over their eyes. If you thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s prosthetic forehead in Looper looked silly, you are going to have serious trouble with this – it’s reminiscent of Sean Connery being Japanified in You Only Live Twice, except much worse. I did read one comment that suggested the characters in 2144 deliberately looked this way because they’d had surgery, but if this is something that I’ve missed it still doesn’t explain why the makeup in all of the other timelines also looks like some sort of microwave-plastic kitchen accident. As the stories inter-connect, some of the actors playing roles in other timelines have been deliberately placed to make a parallel or emphasize the connection, but other strange bit-parts seem to simply be there because someone thought it would be fun to have a go at putting them in a role as another race, age or gender. Interesting idea, but it is executed badly and is far too confusing amongst the context of everything else happening.

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Despite the frustratingly erratic plot however, this is an undeniably watchable film. It draws you in, looks great (apart from that makeup) and the different timelines do all feel almost like they could be separate films from their respective genres. Scifi veterans will notice almost endless references to other works – Do Androids Dream/Blade Runner, The Time Machine, Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451, The Running Man (yes, the Arnold film) to name a few. Some of the references are even reasonably respectful and subtle. If you don’t mind your involvement with the story being continually interrupted by your rational mind asking “why does that character have plastic stuck to their face?” then you should consider giving this the 3 hours required to watch it, but make sure you schedule in another 3 for a re-watch after your confusion subsides.

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  • nich obert

    Considering that the Asians are like a slave caste for the most part, I’m guessing there was intent!