Friday, October 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas: Fair to partly opaque

Cloud Atlas (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity, nudity, sexuality, drug use and often disturbing dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.26.12

Shirley MacLaine will adore this film, and I’m sure she already has done her part to goose sales of David Mitchell’s source novel.

Investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), poking about behind the scenes at a
nuclear power plant, is surprised when scientist Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks, center)
doesn't turn her in to CEO Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). She soon learns that Sachs has
just as much reason to be concerned by what is taking place under Hooks' watch.
Rarely has the interconnectivity of past lives been conveyed so cleverly on screen, and certainly never before with such audacious snap. Even if you snicker at the premise and the multiple casting gimmick — about which, more later — it’s impossible to deny the skill with which these half-dozen interlinked stories unfold.

Despite an indulgent length of nearly three hours, directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski maintain an impressive degree of suspense and momentum, layering cliff-hanger upon cliff-hanger. We can’t help being caught up in the vastness of this sweeping fantasy, or the intimacy of its individual storylines.

And yet, when all is done and the screen fades to black, it seems like a lot of fuss and bother about very little. Just as Christopher Nolan’s Inception was an overcooked journey to discover the identity of Rosebud, Cloud Atlas builds to its climax only as a means of reflecting upon the endurance of true love, and the notion that — historically, contemporarily or in a future yet to come — individuals can make a difference, and always have.

As one character says, “What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but I suppose the thought is comforting.

The interlaced narratives are driven, to a degree, by the shared memory of a piece of music: the Cloud Atlas Sextet, a symphony written by young ne’er-do-well Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), during his 1936 stint as amanuensis to cranky old composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), years beyond his prime. The spirit of this music — actually composed by Tykwer and score collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil — imbues these and all other characters, and the theme itself bridges events from one time period to the next.

A century earlier, in 1849, idealistic San Francisco attorney Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) has traveled to the Pacific Islands on behalf of his wealthy father-in-law, to obtain a slave-trading contract with a sanctimonious plantation owner (Hugh Grant). The sea voyage home proves both perilous and enlightening: Ewing contracts a tropical disease that requires the ministrations of the ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks), and confinement to a cabin below decks ... where the young attorney finds a stowaway slave (David Gyasi, as Autua).

With the intelligent and resourceful Autua giving a face to the barbarism of slavery, Adam finds himself caught between professional obligations and awakening moral clarity.

In 1973 San Francisco, crusading journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) gets briefly stuck in an elevator with elderly physicist Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), who — as a young man — is the lover to whom Robert Frobisher writes impassioned letters. The aging Sixsmith is troubled, which Luisa can sense; she’s therefore not surprised when he calls, late one night, and begs for an interview.

Just that quickly, Luisa begins to unravel evidence of corporate corruption at a nuclear power plant: a level of malfeasance on a horrific scale, orchestrated by shadowy figures willing to silence potential whistle-blowers by any means necessary.

In 2012 England, small-time publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) achieves fleeting financial success with the vanity biography of a Scottish gangster. Unfortunately, Cavendish’s new-found wealth attracts the wrong sort of attention, which prompts him to seek help from his brother. But relying on sibling devotion proves ill-advised; Cavendish’s “secure” bolt-hole turns out to be a special sort of nursing facility: an apparently benign old-folks home that’s actually a maximum-security lockdown overseen by a sadistic staff.

As depicted with an exaggerated level of whimsy straight out of an episode of the 1960s British TV series The Avengers, Cavendish finds that his sanctuary is so secure that even he can’t escape it.

In 2144 Neo Seoul, we’re introduced to Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a “fabricant” genetically engineered as a restaurant server to the jaded aristocrats who manage this Orwellian society. Although designed to be compliant, Sonmi-451’s awareness and curiosity are aroused, first by a sister fabricant, and then by a mysterious revolutionary who orchestrates her escape from the bleak, brutal routine of her day-to-day existence.

But then what? Although hesitantly allowing herself to embrace love, devotion and the range of emotions normally restricted to the aristocratic “purebloods,” Sonmi-451 eventually learns that her freedom has been sought for a reason: a potentially noble calling that she may not have the courage to embrace.

Finally, two centuries further along, with civilization’s remnants clinging to life after some sort of planetary cataclysm, we meet Zachry (Hanks again), a goatherd who spends each day in mortal terror of the ravaging cannibals that inhabit the surrounding woods. Zachry is troubled by dreams that are interpreted by the village Abbess (Susan Sarandon); he’s equally plagued by doubts that take the human shape of a taunting, Satanic spirit (Hugo Weaving).

The local routine is interrupted by the arrival of Meronym (Berry again), an emissary of an advanced, surviving human community elsewhere on the globe. She seeks something reputedly concealed near Zachry’s village, in a mountainous region deemed forbidden. She also seeks his trust, but that’s an uphill struggle; Zachry is a weak, superstitious man, and he fears change almost more than the marauding cannibals.

Although each of these six narratives is compelling, we’re drawn most to Berry’s resourceful journalist — perhaps because her storyline resonates with current socio-political struggles — and to Sonmi-451’s spiritual growth, because Bae is such a compelling actress.

Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), trying to escape agents of a repressive futuristic society, finds
that she's being watched not only from the ground, but also from the sky.
Neo-Seoul represents a human future gone very, very bad: a cruel, even more corrupt and soulless society than what was depicted in Blade Runner. Against this horrific backdrop, Bae’s Sonmi-451 dazzles because of her initial innocence and eventual blossoming: a modest little flower that becomes radiant as its unfolding petals sparkle against an otherwise cold winter landscape.

Bae moves and gestures with a dancer’s balletic grace, suggesting a not-quite-human oddness that evokes pleasant memories of other classic cinematic simulacrums, from Jeff Bridges (Starman) to Jude Law (A.I.). She’s utterly captivating, and she powers this storyline.

That, and its James Bondian overtones. This is, after all, a Wachowski brothers production; it wouldn’t be complete without furious gunplay and aggressive chase scenes, all set against a disturbing futuristic dystopia.

It could also be that we’re drawn so thoroughly to Berry’s Luisa Rey because the actress can emote as her natural self, absent heavy makeup. Luisa’s storyline also is stylized in the manner of a 1970s blaxploitation thriller, which perhaps makes it the most accessible of these various narratives.

Similarly, we identify strongly with Sonmi-451’s plight because Bae also is free of the heavy makeup that allows her to play other, smaller roles in the parallel narratives. The worst decision: giving her freckles and “westernizing” her, as the 19th century Ewing’s wife.

Then again, that’s probably no different than “easternizing” Sturgess so he can play Hae-Joo Chang, the revolutionary who comes to Sonmi-451’s rescue; or making Hanks the Scottish thug whose book Cavendish publishes; or — and this really is a ludicrous stretch — making Weaving the domineering Nurse Noakes.

The point: These multiple, makeup-driven roles are distracting. I understand the point behind some of them — as a means to depict the manner in which a spirit flows from one body to the next — but the gimmick calls too much attention to itself, and pulls us out of the story.

The technique also isn’t employed consistently. In a few cases, karma is honored: Grant and Weaving — the latter so memorably evil as Agent Smith, in the Matrix trilogy — are always various shades of evil, while Berry is always virtuous, and Sturgess is always idealistic.

But too many other additional appearances are mere vanity turns, along the lines of, say, Eddie Murphy’s multiple roles in The Nutty Professor. Hanks pops up as a seedy innkeeper; Whishaw briefly appears as Cavendish’s brother’s wife (!); and Berry also cross-dresses as Ovid, a 22nd century doctor. Needless to say, all such parts could — and should — have been played by different actors.

That said, we do experience a pang of melancholy when Whishaw briefly pops up as a record store clerk in 1973, who can’t get a tune out of his head: the Cloud Atlas Sextet, of course, composed by the character Wishaw plays in 1936.

Various casual references and events link these six narratives; the number 6 itself pops up repeatedly. Poor, trapped Cavendish describes his odd incarceration in a book that eventually is made into a film, a portion of which helps inspire Sonmi-451, a century later. Rufus Sixsmith physically bridges the 1936 and 1973 events; and Sonmi-451’s actions resonate in Zachry’s post-apocalyptic world.

Even a frantic warning by Cavendish, recalling a notorious 1970s science-fiction film, has unsettling implications.

Then again, Adam Ewing’s sea voyage and Luisa Rey’s journalistic quest seem only weakly linked to the other narratives.

The film’s production design is excellent, keeping both Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch quite busy: Whether 19th century slaver ship, Scottish estate, 20th century nuclear power facility or eye-popping futuristic Neo Seoul, we’re thoroughly, persuasively immersed in each setting. Editor Alexander Berner also does superb work, balancing all these narratives, accelerating or stretching our “visits” to each timeline as events approach or recede from one crisis to the next.

I find it both amusing and ironic that the Wachowskis, responsible for some of Hollywood’s most bloated and self-indulgent fantasies (Speed Racer, the second and third Matrix entries) would team up with Tykwer, who brought us one of the most economical thrillers ever made (the 81-minute Run Lola Run). Then again, this creative marriage appears to have worked; although Cloud Atlas runs 172 minutes, our interest rarely flags.

Even so, the outcome feels anticlimactic: a shrugging “Oh, OK, that’s interesting,” as opposed to the sort of breathtaking, gotta-watch-that-again exhilaration prompted by the audacious final moments of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Sixth Sense.

Cloud Atlas is an investment, and we trust the filmmakers to make the destination worth the ambitious journey. Sadly, the emotional return is something of a letdown.

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