Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Robert Fyfe, Martin Wuttke.
Written by Lana Wachowski (formerly Larry Wachoski) Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, based on the novel by David Mitchell.
Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski.
Ever since the runaway success of The Matrix (1999), everyone has been waiting for the reclusive Wachoskis (siblings Lana, who used to be Larry, and Andy) to break out again. Their adaptation of David Mitchell's Novel Cloud Atlas might be that second success they have been looking for. It might also be their strangest film to date.
The story of Cloud Atlas is perhaps too complex to explain in a film review, but I will try and give a little context, while avoiding too many spoilers.
The best way to describe Cloud Atlas is to say it's story that spans several centuries from the past, present and future, involving several unique characters played by the same actors. Tom Hanks plays no less than five characters, while Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess (among others) take on multiple roles as well.
The main idea behind Cloud Atlas is the connection between the principal characters who share an identical birthmark (in the shape of a shooting star), who, at one point or another, experience some sort of slavery or injustice at the hands of a shadowy oppressor.
One story follows Adam Ewing (Sturgess), a 1850s businessman who saves a slave from death after he is discovered as stowaway during a ship's return to San Francisco from a distant island. Hanks plays an evil doctor trying to poison Ewing during the journey.
Another story follows British scientist Rufus Sixpence (James D'Arcy) and his gay lover Robert (Ben Whishaw), an aspiring composer who eventually pens a little-known masterpiece (dubbed the "Cloud Atlas" sextet).
Following in chronological order, the next sequence occurs in the 1970s with an older Sixpence trying to help Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) uncover a plot by a huge energy conglomerate led by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) to manipulate energy production by constructing a dangerous nuclear plant near San Francisco.
The next interconnected story takes place in present day, and involves Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a British publisher who is forced into exile to an insane asylum by his brother (Grant) after fleeing from gangsters.
Forward more than a century into the future, where a genetically manufactured Korean slave girl named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) lives as a server among abusive clientele at a fast food restaurant. Her master is Seer Rhee (Grant), who uses one of her fellow slaves Yoona-939 (Xun Zhou) for his own pleasure. One night, Sonmi-451 is rescued from the restaurant by the revolutionary soldier Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), who shows her the truth of what happens to outdated clones and inspires her to speak out against the totalitarian regime, mostly through the study of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's philosophies on oppression, good and evil.
Deeper into the post-Apocalyptic world of Hawaii, Tom Hanks plays Zachry, a goat herder who is trying to keep his village safe from a marauding clan of cannibals, led by an evil chief (Grant). The people speak some sort of hybrid language that appears to be a combination of Ebonics, the language spoken by the kids in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Jodie Foster's "Nell-speak". An advanced trader/explorer named Meronym (Berry) visits the islands in search of a space uplink at the top of a mountain, the path to which is known by Zachry, who eventually agrees to be her guide. Meronym hopes the link will save the human race by sending a signal to outer space.
It's important to note that throughout the various stories told during Cloud Atlas, there are connections between the characters that link all of the tales together. There are also recurring character types, such as the evil roles played by Hugo Weaving (who actually plays a version of Satan in one story) throughout the film.
Cloud Atlas might be a confusing film if taken on its face as flashback/forward puzzle that holds the promise of some sort of grand payoff, either in plot or philosophical resolution. The performances of the same actors in various roles is noteworthy, especially for Hanks and Grant, who really stretch themselves into accents and personalities you've never seen before. The makeup, costumes, scenery and art direction of Cloud Atlas are unparalleled in scope, and certainly reminiscent of the Wachowski's Matrix's innovations.
While the meandering story does resolve itself in Cloud Atlas, many viewers might not catch some of the existential themes in the film, unless they have read and studied the book. Those themes are universally simple in their ethical standard. I caught onto it without much deep thought, and wondered if it's not too far removed from Bill and Ted's mantra of "Be excellent to each other." Maybe that's a little too simplistic for an analysis of Solzhenitsyn, but you'd have to actually be one of those soulless oppressors or head-in-the sand spectators to such oppression to not understand such simple ethics. In other words, if you know anything about the story of the Good Samaritan, you've been there already. That said, Cloud Atlas' message of being kind to others and helping those who fall is an appropriate reminder for all of humanity.
While you might get a quasi-religious experience from Cloud Atlas, be warned that much of its content does not belong in a church meeting. It is appropriately rated R for plenty of brutal violence, language, sex and nudity.