Film Review: Cloud Atlas

An incredibly ambitious undertaking that tells six distinct stories that unfold in different eras and places while sharing a common theme, 'Cloud Atlas' stands some chance of being a blockbuster, if only by virtue of offering something for everyone.

Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings’ adaptation of David Mitchell's Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Cloud Atlas is framed by two brief segments set in 2346, in which neo-primitive elder Zachry (Tom Hanks) heeds the call of ancestral memory to tell a series of six overlapping stories, each of which pivots on a moment when an ordinary person confronts a moral choice with the power to alter the course of history.

In the earliest story, American lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is returning home from the Eastern coast of New Zealand with a chest full of gold and a lucrative contract to work with slave traders. But he forms an unlikely bond with tattooed stowaway Autua (David Gyasi) that profoundly changes the way he judges other men.

In 1930s Scotland, young musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) worms his way into the household of acclaimed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in hopes of jumpstarting his own career. But his letters to lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) suggest that he's rashly placed himself in danger.

San Francisco reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating a tip in 1973 that the Swannekke nuclear power plant may not be as safe its management claims. She finds allies in elderly scientist Sixsmith and plant employee Isaac Sachs (Hanks), the latter torn between his career and his conscience.

After thuggish novelist Dermot Hoggins (Hanks) murders a critic at a swanky London party, his 2012 novel Knuckle Sandwich rockets up the bestseller list. But publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) only briefly enjoys his unexpected success before his estranged brother (Hugh Grant) has him locked up in a sinister old-age home.

Revolutionary leader Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess) rescues "fabricant" Sonmi (Donna Bae)—a clone bred to wait tables and be groped by customers of 22nd-century Neo Seoul's Papa Song restaurant chain—from her life of predetermined servitude. But what part could a waitress who was literally made to be docile and obedient play in a political uprising?

And in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, cautious goatherd Zachry is obliged to play reluctant host to Meronym (Berry), a "prescient" from a more advanced segment of the society that rose from the ashes of the old world. Even more reluctantly, he strikes a deal to guide her to the top of a nearby mountain his people regard as cursed.

A "cloud atlas" is a book dedicated to the classification of cloud types and forms (the first was published in 1802), and the film's title suggests that each character is engaged in a journey that's both poetic and scientific, attempting to quantify the elusive and mysterious. The conceit of history-changing moments is handled more subtly than it sounds: No story ends with a decisive, earthshaking victory against blind conformity, comfortable ignorance or tyranny that will literally change the world. But each is a tile in a vast mosaic of events whose cumulative effect will. And though its big ideas can be reduced to well-worn phrases like "No man is an island," "All you need is love," "United we stand, divided we fall" and "We're all connected," Cloud Atlas attempts to strip each one of the layers of familiarity that make them seem like greeting-card platitudes rather than genuinely provocative notions.

Having the same core group of actors play different roles in various stories helps tie them together, even if it sometimes so strains credulity that it pulls the viewer out of the story—Halle Berry as Ayrs' Jewish wife, for example, or Sturgess as an Asian freedom fighter, or the phenomenally versatile Hugo Weaving as the Nurse Ratched of Cavendish's rest-home prison.

But on the whole, Cloud Atlas is consistently entertaining and surprisingly effective, as well as the shortest three hours most moviegoers will ever spend in a theatre…and that's no small recommendation.