Forgotten Films: Cloud Atlas (2012)

Audiences tend to love or hate Cloud Atlas.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 152nd in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films

This week’s film is not very old but I think it is pretty forgotten. There seems to be a sharp divide among the folks who have seen Cloud Atlas. Many of them love the film; the remainder seems to despise it. There’s not a lot of middle ground. Love it or hate it.

And it is pretty easy to see why the divide is there. Cloud Atlas is not an easy, mindless film. It requires work on the part of the viewer. No easy-to-follow caper or adventure film here. And, to top it off, it is long, clocking in at 172 minutes.

So let’s talk about the film and its structure. The story follows six narrative paths with intertwining fates. The basic story lines involve 1849 Pacific Islands and San Francisco, 1936 London/Edinburgh, 1973 San Francisco, 2012 London, 2144 Neo-Seoul and Hawaii 106 years after the big fall (estimated as 2321). The lead actors have the following roles:

  • Tom Hanks plays Dr. Henry Glass, hotel manager, Dr. Isaac Sachs, gangster/author,  Dermott Hoggins, an actor playing Timothy Cavendish (see below) and Zachry.
  • Halle Berry plays a native woman, Jocasta Ayrs; Luisa Rey, an Indian party guest; Ovid and Meronym.
  • Jim Broadbent plays Captain Molyneux, Vyvyan Ayrs, N/A, Timothy Cavendish, a Korean musician and a prescient.
  • Hugo Weaving plays Haskell More, Tadeusz Kesselring, Bill Smoke, Nurse Noakes, Boardman Mephi and Old George.
  • Jim Sturgess plays Adam Ewing; a poor hotel guest; Megan’s Dad; a highlander; Hae Joo Chang and Adam
  • Doona Bae plays Tilda Ewing, N/A, Megan’s Mom and Mexican woman, N/A, Sonmi-451 and N/A
  • Ben Whishaw plays a cabin boy, Robert Frobisher, store clerk, Georgette, N/A and a tribesman.

The primary viewpoint characters are Adam Ewing (Sturgess), Robert Frobisher (Whishaw), Luisa Rey (Berry), Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), Sonmi-451 (Bae) and Zachry (Hanks). As you can see, each actor had multiple roles and each plays a different part in the overall plot.

The various plots include the awakening of a young rich man to the problems of slavery and a plot to kill him, a young composer trying to get ahead by being the amanuensis to an elderly composer, the quest of a young journalist to find out about a flawed nuclear power plant, the attempts of an elderly publisher to escape danger and a mental hospital, the awakening of a female android (fabricant) and her message to the people of her world and the trials of a middle aged tribesman trying to overcome his shame and fear of the unknown.

The Wachowskis (Lana and Andy) along with Tom Twyker wrote the screenplay based on David Mitchell’s novel and the trio also directed the film. The structure has the six stories running simultaneously, sometimes with dialogue from one era suddenly appearing and applying in another. And there is no rigid flow from one section to another. You may go from the post-apocalyptic final world to the South Pacific to Neo-Seoul to San Francisco and so on. The stories each have their cliffhangers, which are addressed, and there are numerous similarities between the stories. Somni trying to escape on a telescoping bridge matches to a sailor walking along a top sail beam ready to unfurl it.

It’s a complex movie that respects the intelligence of the viewer by not trying to explain everything, Much of the later sections’ dialogue are a patois that you can get the gist of without knowing the exact meaning of each word, since the language and everything else has evolved over time.

The film rewards the careful viewers in many ways, and, for once, the documentaries on the Blu-ray actually have insights that are revealed in later viewings.

If it sounds interesting, give this one a try. And, as I have said many times, your mileage may vary. I loved this film and wish I could describe it better to you. And I really, really wish I had seen it on the big screen.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.


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