Falling into Infinity: The Bottom Line on the Indie Epic Cloud Atlas by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis

Zachry (Tom Hanks) and Meronym (Halle Berry) in the post-apocalyptic section of Cloud Atlas.

A big-budget independent movie based on a novel considered to be ‘unfilmable’ – that sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? Three renowned directors still made the daring choice to tackle David Mitchell’s 2004 book Cloud Atlas. They hired an international all-star cast consisting of the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, David Gyasi, Keith David, and Hugh Grant and went to work. Has their expensive experiment been a success or a big-time failure?

As far as the story is concerned, Cloud Atlas is far too complex and multilayered to sum it up. In a nutshell, you can say it’s about love and compassion. The movie operates on the premise that everything is connected and that we can alter the course of history with our actions. Granted, the cynic within us might say that this is far from the realities of this world. But doesn’t it make you feel more positive that what you say and do actually adds up to something, that you’re more than just a tiny speck of dirt in this endless universe?

For that reason, a Korean resistance commander saves a duplicant named Sonmi in the Neo Seoul of the year 2144 in a noir mix between Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, and Tron. That’s why a post-apocalyptic Tom Hanks helps out the technologically more advanced but dying Halle Berry, only to find out that Sonmi is worshipped as a goddess in a temple on a mountain top. The essential question is, why we – mankind in general – keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again as opposed to actually learning from them.

‘What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’

At an estimated budget of $102 million, Cloud Atlas is the most expensive movie ever produced in Germany. Who knows, maybe adapting David Mitchell’s eponymous novel was deemed far too ambitious and sophisticated a project to be greenlit in Hollywood – despite a cast of U.S. stars like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Keith David, and Susan Sarandon. After all, the film has three people in the director’s chair – German Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run and Perfume fame and American The Matrix and V For Vendetta masterminds Andy and Lana Wachowski.

Consequently, Cloud Atlas was shot at various locations in Düsseldorf, Mallorca, Scotland, and at the Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam near Berlin and not in California, even though one of the six stories is set in the San Francisco of 1973. The remaining five angles take place in the South Pacific Ocean of 1849, the Cambridge and Edinburgh of 1936, contemporary Britain, the Neo Seoul of 2144, and the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian Islands of the 24th century. Epic as it is, pretty much all the actors appear in different roles and guises in each of these episodes.

‘When life gives you lemons, you make apple juice.’

Make no mistake, Cloud Atlas is certainly pretentious and overblown, but one of its many saving graces is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Quite the contrary, the movie plays with the clichés. Stereotypes are constructed, only to be taken apart afterwards. Yet for all its ambition, the film never lacks any humor. In fact, Jim Broadbent and the story set in the modern United Kingdom are downright hilarious. Comic relief within epic proportions can hardly be more deliciously done than what Tom Tykwer serves us in this episode. It tickles you pink.

Similarly, Keith David joking about the Korean War during the San Francisco angle has a similar ring to what Christopher Walken does as Captain Koons in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. German audiences will also be delighted about the way Tom Tykwer employs a hit song by an American actor who has always been more – notoriously – famous in the land of the Teutons than in the United States. “Looking For Freedom” by David Hasselhoff pops up in the background when Jim Broadbent’s jolly foursome flees from the old folks’ home and its diabolic staff.

For humor’s sake, Tom Tykwer also uses his fair share of actors from his own country as extras in the same episode. When the retirees end up in an English pub on their flight to hide from their pursuers, a myriad of these Germans comes to their rescue. A ridiculously amusing brawl ensues, and the funniest moment is probably when virago Katy Karrenbauer – known for her role as female prison guard in a popular German TV series – grapples with The Lord Of The Rings star Hugo Weaving – who, as battleaxe Nurse Noakes, is dressed like a woman.

The weak are meat and the strong do eat!’

That’s not to say that Cloud Atlas is shallow. It actually touches on a variety of rather difficult and controversial social issues, especially given the eras the different stories are set in. Those include racism, homosexuality, intolerance, slavery, corruption, theft, the nuclear threat, and the way mankind is destroying itself. Likewise, the film also shows that souls can change in the course of time. While Tom Hanks starts out as a villain in the 1849 episode, his characters gradually become more ethical until he finally emerges as the savior in the 24th century.

Englishman Hugh Grant, on the other hand, is not only cast against type in Cloud Atlas. Normally famous for his parts in romantic comedies, he also increasingly turns into the bad guy here until he finally slits throats as a bloodthirsty post-apocalyptic tribal chief. Hugo Weaving, however, remains evil throughout the movie. His characters are never good to start with, whether they scheme their way through life or work as a hired assassin, and he eventually ends up as a sort of demon haunting Tom Hanks in the 24th century.

Another plus is that Cloud Atlas is coherent and doesn’t look as if it were an omnibus movie told by three different voices. There’s no drop-off between the individual sections handled by the Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, and things never get boring during the film’s running time of almost three hours. Initially, some viewers might be a little confused because the movie jumps back and forth between these interwoven tales, so as to introduce all the characters, settings, and storylines. This approach works much better than originally expected.

We are bound together from womb to tomb.’

Likewise, Cloud Atlas doesn’t only reference other films; it openly coquets with a number of older science-fiction flicks. The clones in Neo Seoul wear the same robes as the late twens about to be terminated in Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run, and they’re given similar false promises of rebirth. Sonmi’s number 451 is an obvious allusion to Fahrenheit 451 by François Truffaut. Both tales contain a rebellion against a future without any books. Additionally, Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish quotes Richard Fleischer’s cannibalistic Soylent Green as he attempts to escape the asylum.

A downside, however, is the way Cloud Atlas handles the different ethnicities of the many characters connected. Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Hugo Weaving, and Keith David are all transformed into Asians through makeup, prosthetics, and CGI in the Neo Seoul tale, while Halle Berry, Korean star Bae Doona, and Chinese actress Zhou Xun each play European women at one point. Yet none of them looks particularly convincing, so that the question may be asked why the producers didn’t go with entirely different people for those – admittedly – rather small parts.

With Cloud Atlas, Tom Tykwer, Andy, and Lana Wachowski walk the thin red line between grand masterpiece and colossal failure. Many will likely be turned off by its long running time, the many characters, the complexity of the overall story, and the way the three directors try to guide their audiences through the movie. It has a lot of heart, empathy, and passion to go with amazing audiovisuals and never fails to entertain. Whether that’s enough to elevate it to the status of a groundbreaking modern opus magnum is for everyone to decide for themselves.

Seen at CinemaxX, Berlin, Germany, on 10 October, 2012.

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