Cloud Atlas: a huge cake with lots of frosting

First, a confession: I love epic stories. I have a huge collection of the books of James Clavell and James A. Michener. A second confession: I am a fan of the works of Andy and Lana (formerly, Larry) Wachowski. The fact that they rarely make movies, and the fact that I love reveling at epic stories spanning generations and centuries, made me anticipate Cloud Atlas in a big way. Speedy and I went to see it last night (a pre-anniversary date of sorts), we knew that the running time was 172 minutes, including the end credits, but it was a Wachowski film, Wachowski films are anything but slow and boring, so the length was nothing to be worried about.

There were about ten people in the movie house, including us, which really means it is not getting a mass following in the Philippines. Not surprising. Throughout the first hour of the film, a couple was chatting audibly, I sent out a hissing sssshhhhh which silenced them. Some time later, they walked out, well before the movie ended, the woman about ten minutes after her male companion. Speedy said they obviously couldn’t understand the film.

I won’t attempt writing a synopsis of the plot as that would take over two thousand words based on a modest estimate. Suffice to say that there is more than one story, supposedly interwoven, the first begins in 1849 and the last takes place post-apocalypse, in 2430 if my math has not failed me.

The actors (Tom hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent, among others) play different characters in each of the stories with female actors occasionally playing male characters and vice versa. Given the period settings and the fact that women played male characters and men played female characters, you can just imagine how impressive the sets, the costumes and the make-up were. South Korean actress Doona Bae played an English redhead, freckles and all, in the 1849 story and she looked every inch an English lady. Jim Sturgess played Hae-Joo Chang in the 2144 Neo-Seoul segment and he looked very Asian. Add that to the mind blowing computer-generated visuals and everything is really Impressive with a capital I.

Each of the stories, taken independently of the others, is coherent and well told though not exactly riveting. I have no problems with the non-linear format with scenes jumping from period to period, propelling the viewer back and forth, sometimes going straight from 1849 to post-Apocalyptic Earth. It was when I tried to find the interconnections that the struggle began.

I was prepared to spend the first hour as a warm-up, familiarizing myself with the characters, and trying to get the general landscape of the story. Accomplishing just that, I was looking forward to the next two hours marveling at the interconnections, waiting for the parts where it becomes clear how the act of one character in 1849, for instance, is related to something that happens in 2144. I waited with every scene shift. Sometimes, I’d be diverted as I enjoyed the scenes just for themselves.

The interconnections between stories, I’d categorize as (1) clear and obvious; (2) trivial; and (3) implied but vague. An example of a clear and obvious interconnection would be how the clone-slave (fabricant) Sonmi-451 in 2144 Neo-Seoul, liberated from slavery, became a god-like figure for the revolution and who continued to be revered through the post-Apocalyptic period. A minor character in the 1936 Cambridge segment who also appeared, as an older version of himself, in the 1973 San Francisco story is a trivial interconnection.

Some interconnections were implied but vague. The 1846 story, for instance, did not seem to have any relation to the other stories at all UNLESS we consider the actors who played husband and wife (Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae) in 1846 and the lovers in 2144 Neo-Seoul. By taking both into account, then, we perceive some kind of connection as the love story and the theme are repeated in the 2144 Neo-Seoul story where Sturgess and Doona Bae again play lovers amid a revolution to end slavery.

Given all that, I felt that Cloud Atlas was a huge beautiful cake with a richly detailed and colorful frosting. The problem is that I’m not sure if the cake underneath the frosting was good at all or whether I was bamboozled by the magnificent presentation that I brushed aside the importance of the cake.

The thing about watching a Wachowski film is that it isn’t wise to judge whether it is good or bad, frivolous or profound, by seeing it just once. Take The Matrix, for example. It is so full of nuances and philosophical underpinnings and not all of it can be digested in one sitting. There simply is too much to swallow in one go. With Cloud Atlas, perhaps, it was a mistake to try to find interconnections between the stories. Perhaps, it was wiser to consider each story as part of a mosaic and the mosaic is the totality of the cinematic experience. That way, digesting the film becomes less stressful.

It goes without saying that I’d love to see the film again when the DVD comes out so that I can play back scenes that need more focus. The post-Apocalyptic period, especially, where the dialogues are really hard to understand because the language used, although obviously still based on English, did not always sound English. After I’ve seen the film again and after I’ve finally decided that I have understood every bit of it can I conclude as to whether it is good or bad, and whether I like it or hate it. Right now, I’m still trying to digest it.


  1. Sharon O says

    Sounds amazing, Mrs V! I’m with you, perhaps it’s best to just sit back, relax, and take it all in, and not think too much about what’s going on…sort of let the meaning come to you one day, perhaps when you’re not even thinking about it, lol. I’m looking forward to seeing this film soon, hopefully! :-)

  2. misao says

    I agree with your assessment… It’s a very good film as a whole, but trying to get clear connections between the stories and how one affected the other resulted in a mild headache. :) One review I’ve read said it’s supposed to be karmic connections regardless of time and space – something I have difficulty in understanding. But I liked the movie and would love to watch it again at home with a remote control to pause and rewind. :)

    By the way, have you seen Life of Pi? It’s an Ang Lee movie based on a novel by Yann Martel. The story is simple enough but the exagerations are fantastic.

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