Film Review: Cloud Atlas

by Dr. Wong Kah Keng




It might not be wise to compress a three-hour epic into a mere two-page review when the film consists of six distinct yet interwoven stories spanning across different centuries (from 1849 to 2321), with diverse elements comprising of sci-fi, comedy, romance, action, thriller, and ultimately philosophy. Despite its vast ambitions, Cloud Atlas could be, ironically, one of the most overlooked films of 2012.

The film is an adaptation of the novel Cloud Atlas (shortlisted for Booker Prize in 2004) by David Mitchell. Due to the intricacies of the structure of the book consisting of six separate stories pouncing between different eras, characters and plots, the book was deemed unfilmable as a film adaptation could risk puzzling the audience with numerous variables. However, it was made possible by three accomplished directors: Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix). There is another unusual aspect of its production: Fundings for this film have come from independent sources. With a budget of over USD100 million, it is one of the most expensive independent films ever made.

Production notes aside, the six stories encompass a 19th-century voyage, a 1930s tragic love story, a thriller in 1973, a present-day comical skit set in Scotland,a 2141 sci-fi in Seoul involving genetically-engineered clones, and a far future post-apocalyptic dystopia in 2321. Rather than presenting one story in its entirety before moving to the next, the six stories are presented almost simultaneously with each plot lasting for a few minutes before bouncing to the others and returning. Nonetheless, each story is presented chronologically and they progress to their own finale at the ending of the film.

Cloud Atlas is a visual treat, be it CGI-assisted or bona fide scenes indoors and outdoors.

Some audience might have a cloudy experience handling scene after scene of different stories but the film is finely edited with engaging plots throughout that they render a seamless transition between distinct plots: the stories are put together into a single narrative experience. The clever editing has also instigated mini-climaxes throughout the film: the nail-biting events of each substory (e.g. attempted murder, car-chase, escape) are almost always placed together, with the non-intimidating events placed in between that act as effective build-up for the next mini-climax. This consistent pattern of storytelling prepares the audience for the film’s finale.

Three different characters portrayed by Zhou Xun (from left to right): as a hotel attendee in the 1970s, a genetically-engineered clone in Seoul (2141), and a Caucasian living in tribes (2321).

The make-up and use of prosthetics could be one of the most talked-about aspects upon viewing. From one story to the next, the entire principal cast are transformed in terms of occupation, age, gender, skin, eye, eyebrow or hair colour: African to Jewish, Caucasian to Asian, or vice versa. For instance, one could see Hugh Grant dressed as an Englishman in Cambridge in the 1930s, while in a post-apocalyptic future he is seen riding a horse with his face painted in blood and decorated with human skulls. At such, the film provides a great opportunity to showcase the versatility of the cast members’ acting skills. However, this is not the main purpose of the characters’ transformation.

Jim Sturgess as an Asian insurgent in 2141, a lawyer from the US in 1849 (inset, left) and a Scottish in the 2010s (inset, right).

The ultimate rationale to have the cast members playing completely distinct characters in different eras is to imply reincarnation, or more precisely, the evolution of a character through time. The characters played by Halle Berry are the yardstick for such evolution:In the earliest time-point (1849), she was a native slave; in the middle chronology of the plots (1973), she played a struggling journalist; and in the final arc of the stories (2321), she was a member of a technologically-advanced society attempting to salvage the remnants of the Earth’s colonies from destruction. Such depictions could be considered as a metaphor or the on-screen tribute to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: Berry’s characters evolved from slavery to heroism through struggles over long periods of time i.e. hundreds of years.

One might need repeated viewing to fathom the central themes of the plots that are not explicitly shown but subtly delivered. Cloud Atlas is an examination of humanity’s interconnectedness and how our actions could make an impact that resonates into the far future. Yet, the message of the film could be open-ended and one’s interpretation of it might be different from others. This could render the film a work of art: like the responses to many artforms, some would dislike it as they find it perplexing and unable to comprehend, while some would applaud it as the artform allows different ways of personalised interpretation. Be it the former or the latter, it is injudicious to neglect the prodigious scope and ambition of Cloud Atlas, and the remarkably unique experience that it provides.


Dr. Wong Kah Keng is the Editor-in-Chief for Scientific Malaysian Magazine (Issue 5). He can be contacted at [email protected]

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