For her second film, Bamboo went with 2012’s Cloud Atlas, an epic film both in duration (almost three hours) and scope (you’ll see) that was so involved it needed three directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer.
The original novel, by David Mitchell, is a modern-day descendant of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, consisting of a series of six stories interrupted in the middle. Unlike Calvino’s classic (which, frankly, Cloud Atlas may one day surpass in literary esteem) the stories in Mitchell’s offering are both connected and completed – each one finished in reverse order after the sixth (which is uninterrupted). Naturally, this structure would make almost no sense in a film, and it would also waste a number of parallels between the stories. For this reason, the directors decided to continuously intercut the films, telling all of the stories in chronological order (save that half of them are bookended) chopping between them, sometimes pausing for several minutes, sometimes only for a few seconds before moving on.
An additional comment needs to be made before we can go forward with any sort of review, and that is that the film (as well as the story) teases us with the hint of a reincarnation storyline. The philosophy of some of the characters expresses the Battlestar Galactican “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” motif, but more than that there are repeated phrases which echo down the years, recurring artifacts, and the fact that the main character of each story is at some point revealed to have the same unusual birthmark shaped like a comet. Throw on top of that the fact that the main actors in the film each play up to six roles (and generally three to four meaty ones) across each of the six timelines (don’t worry – they’re separated enough both temporally and stylistically that there’s absolutely no fear that even a naïve viewer of the film will confuse the timelines, intercut as they are) and you’ve set the stage for some seriously complicated reincarnation genealogical trees. But don’t worry, the film actually glosses this over and in the end leaves it more as an impression than a rule, and while some actors play universally good characters, some universally bad, and Hanks at the very least seems to have a story arc reluctantly and slowly moving from evil to redemption (with at least one hiccup on the way) the significance of any past-lifing going on is pretty downplayed.
As far as the reviewing the film goes, it would make no sense at all (nor could I remotely remember the sequence) to try to tell the six narratives as they are interweaved in the film. Better to simply go forward, from the earliest time period to the latest.
1. The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing
Taking place in 1849, shortly after the Gold Rush in California, the first story centers on Adam Ewing, a lawyer and son-in-law of an influential San Francisco businessman and natural philosopher (those two do go hand-in-hand, so…) Ewing is in the South Pacific on behalf of his father-in-law negotiating a slave-trade contract. While being led around the islands, Ewing witnesses the slave Autua being savagely whipped and he looks upon him in pity. This glance is to reverberate in unimaginable ways for at least 400 years (the timeline gets a bit fuzzy at the end).
Returning on a ship with the signed slave-trade contract (and a chest full of gold), Ewing is diagnosed with a Polynesian brain worm by the very unscrupulously-acting Dr. Goose, who initiates treatment which not surprisingly seems only to make Ewing feel worse. Shortly into the trip, Ewing discovers that Autua, the slave he saw being whipped, has stowed away in his cabin. Autua explains that as a boy he was taken onto a sailing ship, and while he is a good sailor, he cherishes his freedom and is a poor slave. He asks Ewing to intercede for him with the Captain lest he be simply thrown overboard as a stowaway, explaining that they had established an unbreakable bond of friendship due to their shared glance. Ewing successfully (if barely) intercedes and Autua joins the crew. In the meantime, he gets sicker and sicker, and as he’s on the verge of dying Dr. Goose taunts him, admitting that he is poisoning Ewing to steal his gold. Ewing, however, is saved by Autua (and a final burst of strength allowing him to bust open the chest of gold on Goose’s head) and upon returning to San Francisco confronts his father-in-law, burning the contract and telling him that he and his wife are heading east to join the abolitionist movement.
2. Letters From Zedelghem (…or Edinburgh, as it were)
It is 1936 and Robert Frobisher is a young bisexual, disinherited by his father but hopeful of becoming a great composer. In financial straits, he abandons his lover (the aspiring physicist Rufus Sixsmith) in Cambridge and heads to Edinburgh with a plan. He intends to take on as an amanuensis for the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs to provide him with an inroad to the composition scene, as it were. He writes copious letters to Sixsmith back in Cambridge, detailing every aspect of his life, including a book he has found the first half of in Ayrs’ house, something called The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, which affects him profoundly. He has a fling with Ayrs’ wife and begins to compose his own work, the Cloud Atlas Sextet.
Frobisher’s relationship with Ayrs, always rocky, takes a turn for the worse when he makes a sympathy pass at the hideous old man, mis-divining his mentor’s intentions. Ayrs chooses this moment to play his trump card – he knows about Frobisher and his sexuality, and he’s going to hold him virtually hostage (in exchange for not revealing that secret to the world) as he takes credit for Frobisher’s divine Cloud Atlas Sextet. Obviously Frobisher can have none of this, so he steals Ayrs’ revolver, shoots him (only a flesh wound) and steals away with his composition to an Edinburgh hotel, where he frantically finishes the piece before his money runs out. Then, as a worried Sixsmith has traveled up to Edinburgh to find him, Frobisher commits suicide (though the act itself is pretty much given away by a bookend in this section).
3. Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery
Moving forward to 1973, we join Luisa Rey, a budding journalist for a rock/society rag (and daughter of a famous Vietnam War journalist) as she gets stranded on a stuck elevator with none other than an aged Rufus Sixsmith – the only instance in the film where one character appears in two stories. They get to talking, and Sixsmith notices her comet birthmark – just like Frobisher’s. This in combination with Luisa’s pedigree gets Sixsmith to thinking, and he finally decides to confide in her. Sixsmith has recently authored a report on the newly-built Swannekke nuclear reactor indicating that it is inherently unsafe, but the company has hushed it up. He asks her over to his hotel room to get a copy of the report – but too late. Bill Smoke, a hit man for the order, beats Luisa to the room and kills Sixsmith, taking the copy of the report (but leaving behind a series of letter from Frobisher that Sixsmith had been re-reading. Luisa, knowing that she’s in on a conspiracy, takes the letters before the police arrive.
From the letters, she learns of Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, an obscure but captivating recording which ultimately comprises a large portion of the film’s soundtrack. She reads the letters while being goaded on to follow up the mystery by the neighbor boy Javier. Of course, she does investigate the conspiracy by going to the nuclear plant itself on an interview. They’re on to her, and despite finding another sympathetic scientist who slips her a copy of the report, she’s no further along because good ol’ Bill Smoke not only bombs a plane that scientist gets on, but also forces Luisa off the bridge to Swannekke. She escapes the waters sans the report and is taken under wing by a security man for Swannekke who served in the unit that her father was embedded with in Vietnam. They try to take on Smoke and are caught by him – but are saved by a sweatshop worker whose dog Smoke cavalierly killed in the chase. Ultimately they realize that big oil is pulling the strings at Swannekke, and they want a meltdown in order to make nuclear power undesirable. Finally, while lightly scratching a pencil over the manila envelope holding Frobisher’s letter, Javier discovers the address of Megan Sixsmith – Rufus’ young physicist niece to whom he has also sent a copy of the report, and we presume that Luisa will be blowing this wide open.
4. The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish
Modern day. Timothy Cavendish is a failing independent publisher whose fortunes change when a tough Irish client objects to a bad review written of his (presumably awful) novel Knuckle Sandwich, and reacts by throwing the reviewer off of a high story balcony at a literary awards event. Sales of the brazen murderer’s book skyrocket. Unfortunately, not respecting the rule of law, the author’s unimprisoned brothers come to Cavendish demanding money he doesn’t have based on profits that the author is not entitled to (and which have, in any case, been used to pay off debts). With nowhere else to turn, Cavendish asks his brother for help. This was probably a bad idea, considering they were not on the best of terms due to Timothy recently having had an affair with his brother’s wife. His brother, saying that he will get together the money Timothy needs, ships him off to a “hotel” in Edinburgh to lie low in the meantime.
Only it’s not a hotel. It’s a retirement home (set in the same building that Ayrs lived in!), and by signing what he believed to be the hotel register, Cavendish has now committed himself – apparently irrevocably. Tortured by a Ratchedesque Nurse Noakes, he doesn’t have much to do outside of read a recently submitted manuscript (for none other than Half Lives, written by Javier) and plan a daring escape with the help of a few fellow
inmates unwilling denizens. In what is easily the most comic section of the film, they successfully steal a car but perhaps unwisely stop at a nearby pub for a quaff instead of getting clear away, allowing Noakes and her crew to locate their vehicle. Still, in the immediate aftermath of yet another English victory over Scotland in a British sport (metric football? rugby?) the Scottish escapee with them is able to ignite the pub against the English Noakes and our hero escapes in the fracas, to eventually settle down and write his memoir.
5. An Orison Of Somni-451
Fast forward to 2144. In the metropolis of Neo-Seoul, a new social order has arisen. Slavery has been reborn, this time in the form of so-called fabricants, genetically-engineered humans who are presumably grown in test tubes, trained as slaves, used for twelve years and then sent along to Exaltation. (Can anybody say “The Carousel is a LIE!”?) Fabricants are bred not to have independent thought, but through means not explained in the film, an underground rebel group has managed to infiltrate the process enough to get a few fabricants to develop some independence. The first to “awaken” is Yoona-939, who eventually befriends the next to awaken, Sonmi-451. Yoona brings Sonmi into a closet, and to Somni’s near horror pulls out a handheld video projector, forbidden for fabricants to operate. It is broken, but will play on repeat a very short clip from a film where an actor exclaims “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse!”
After Yoona is killed in an attempt to escape the fast-food restaurant where they work, the underground sneaks in one night and steals away Sonmi, who they feel is their last hope to produce an independently-thinking fabricant. One officer befriends her, allows her access to “internet” education, and even finds a full copy of the film she had watched the short but influential clip of – an adaptation of The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish. Pursued by the authorities of Unanimity, they have some grand special-effecty sci-fi adventures and ultimately the leader of the underground asks Sonmi to stand up for the right of fabricants, even if it means her life. She is unwilling to go through with this, but the underground sneaks her into the operations of Exaltation – where instead of a reward of paradise, aging fabricants are slaughtered (blithely singing a song to the tune of the Cloud Atlas Sextet as they are unknowingly led into their abbattoir) and turned into food to be fed to other fabricants. This pushes Sonmi over the edge and she agrees to broadcast an underground radio address on the subject. Naturally, the authorities hone in on the broadcast, killing all of the underground present and capturing Sonmi, but the damage is presumably done. Sonmi, like all condemned prisoners in Unanimity, is asked to record her story in what is called an Orison before she is executed.
6. Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
Finally we take our last jump into the future – 106 winters after The Fall. We don’t really know what caused The Fall, but our hero Zachry is a member of a peaceful hut-living tribe on the big island of Hawaii. They’re not the only survivors. For one, there’s the Kona tribe, horse-riding warriors with a taste for blood. As the story opens, Zachry’s brother-in-law and nephew are caught by the Kona in the woods while Zachry, who happened to be a few hundred feet away, watches on as they are killed. His reticence to risk his own life to save his family is reinforced by the gruesome vision of Old Georgy, the proverbial devil on Zachry’s shoulder. They’re a superstitious society, afraid of Old Georgy and worshipping a mysterious goddess known as Sonmi, whose revelation is preserved in a hand-woven book.
The other known inhabitants of Earth are the Prescients, apparently the only technological society in this post-apocalyptic world. From time to time the Prescients come on their “smart” ships to trade with Zachry’s tribe, and shortly after the Kona attack on his brother-in-law, a barter happens again, only this time one of the Prescients – Meronym – remains behind. She wants to get somebody to lead her up Mauna Kea, which the tribe considers to be haunted. Nobody is willing to do so, but a perceptive Zachry realizes the extent of her “smart” powers and when his niece gets a would-be fatal scorpionfish sting, he convinces Meronym to slyly intervene in exchange for guiding her up the mountain. It turns out that there are high radiation levels (as a result of The Fall?) that are killing the Prescients (why not the Hawaiians?), and Mauna Kea, as a former spaceport, may hold working technology that will allow Meronym to send a distress signal to some off-world colonies that may yet exist. She sends a signal, but when they return, they find that the village has been destroyed by the Kona. They find only Zachry’s hiding niece alive, and after a final battle with the Kona the last two survivors join the Prescients and ultimately (we learn in the bookend) make their way to the safety of an off-world colony.
Not much to say outside of the fact that it’s an amazing movie, and that despite the incessant intercutting, it completely works. It’s a beautiful film as well, though some of the makeup (particularly the “old man” makeup on Hugh Grant in the fourth segment) is a bit off. From time to time men play female characters, women play male characters, actors of one race portray characters of another, and sometimes it works and sometimes it’s distracting. So it goes. I understand what they were going for, and to some extent the goal was to not conceal the identity of the various actors in their various roles across the eras. To be honest, in the few instances where the film does a great job of concealing the identity of the actor (Doona Bae in the third segment stands out) the impact is actually lessened by the lack of that “Aha!” moment allowing you to connect the story across the ages.
Not only is it a great film, but it’s a great book. As in any adaptation there are changes and omissions and elisions, but for the most part Cloud Atlas is pretty true to the original. It’s probably worth commenting on the one definite change for the better. The Neo-Seoul segment in the book is hopelessly convoluted. The depictions of the society and of Sonmi recounting her Orison are good, but the plot…! It ultimately turns out that Sonmi’s liberators are actually agents of the established government and not (as they claim) a rebel underground, and they orchestrate an incredibly complicated series of adventures for Sonmi in order to manipulate her to give her anti-government screed – which they think will allow them to pass more draconian laws to control the “dangerous” slave class of fabricants. Presumably it backfires in the end, but it’s a dumb plan implausibly constructed and the weak part of the entire book. The directors grasped both ends of that crooked arrow of a plot and just straightened it right out: real rebel group! Don’t make it any more complicated than necessary. And that’s probably good advice for watching the movie. There are things that someone who hasn’t read the book won’t understand. There are things that won’t come together – in fact there were several clever things I noticed on a second viewing that never registered the first time despite having just read the novel. The pidgin English spoken in the last segment is half unintelligible. But don’t make it any more complicated than necessary. Just sit back and enjoy it, and it will all come together.