Film review - Cloud Atlas

Posted on: 22 February 2013 by Agatha Cheng

Laurence Green reviews the latest film from The Wachowskis and Tim Tykwer, Cloud Atlas, based on same-title novel by David Mitchell.

Past, present and future merge in Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski’s disappointing film version of David Mitchell’s popular novel Cloud Atlas (released nationwide on February 22).

The story begind in the South Pacific in 1849. Sailing home to California after securing for his father-in-law a plantation contract, diarist Adam Ewing comes to the aid of stowaway slave Autua. In reciprocation Autua saves Ewing from malignant prisoner Dr. Henry Goose. On his return to San Francisco, Ewing burns the contract and, with his wife, Tilda, joins the abolitionists.

We are now transported to Edinburgh in 1936. Disinherited by his father and finding all doors closed to him in England, Robert Frobisher takes leave of his lover, Rufus Sixsmith and sets out to make a name for himself on his own terms. Apprenticing himself to Vyvyan Ayrs, a renowned composer in his 70s, Frobisher plans to write his masterpiece, a symphony he will call The Cloud Atlas Sextet. All the while he keeps in touch with his beloved Sixsmith through letters, imagining a triumphant return. But Frobisher underestimates Ayrs’s powers until his situation takes a desperate turn. action moves forward to San Francisco in 1973. Journalist Luisa Rey uncovers corruption at a nuclear power plant that could affect thousands of lives and puts her at odds with duplicitous plant president Lloyd Hooks. Targeted by Hooks’s hitman Bill Smoke, Luisa’s only chance of survival is to put her faith into the hands of Napier, who was formerly in Hooks’s employ but who clearly has had enough of taking his orders.

It is England, the year 2012. On the run from an imprisoned author’s brothers, 65-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish discovers that the ‘hotel’ where his own vengeful brother has sent him to hide is in fact an old people’s home. Cavendish though, manages to escape with three others and, on being reunited with his childhood sweetheart, write his memoirs.

We move forward to a dystopian Neo Seoul in 2144, where the fabricant Sonmi-451 is genetically engineered to spend her brief existence as a compliant restaurant server in an ominously totalitarian society built atop the ruins of a flooded Seoul. Encouraged to nurture forbidden independent thoughts by sister fabricant Yoona-939, Sonmi embarks on a path from which there can be no retreat.

Eschewing the book’s linearity, the film moves back and forth in time, spanning a period of 500 years, with characters meeting and reuniting from one life to the next, born and reborn. Indeed the cinematic device of crosscutting and the interweaving of multiple storylines in various genres creates confusion and weakens the power of each narrative thread. The result is that the film fails to involve us in the characters predicaments. distinguished cast which includes Ton Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant pop up over the years in various guises and lend a certain creditability to their thinly drawn characters.

But the film’s biggest plus is in the vivid and at times exciting recreation of the various worlds particularly the brightly-lit fast food restaurant of the future and Sonmi’s escape in the post-apocalyptic sequence and the dashes between her champion Chang and  the government hit squad that takes them high over Neo Seoul’s skyscrapers and through its depths.

An ambitious venture then but I have the feeling that the complexities of the original novel make it unfilmable. 

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