David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
If DreamWorks’ 2005 sci-fi flick The Island had been directed by Friedrich Nietzsche then you’d probably have seen something like Never Let Me Go. Strip the spectacle from that over-the-top actioner and you’re left with some heavy subject matter; a meditation on life and death and an allegory for the pro-life/pro-choice debate or lack thereof when concerning clones. Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later Sunshine) explore the same ethical dilemma as proposed by Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel by creating an alternate reality that isn’t much different from our own considering the often shameful and self-serving nature of homo sapiens.
The film is set in a world where medical advances in the mid-20th Century have allowed humans to live as long as 100 years on average at the expense of “donors” – test-tube babies created from the genes of junkies and hobos. These unfortunate individuals are raised at facilities like the Hailsham House (essentially upper-crust English boarding schools) where they are controlled cut off from society and kept healthy and clean so their organs are in tip-top shape to fuel the failing bodies of the general population. Some donors qualify to become “Carers” who tend to the others when the surgeries begin. Upon “completion” the Carer moves on to the next subject until they receive their notice and become a donor themselves.
Though the children learn about their morbid fate at a young age thanks to their guilt-ridden school teacher Miss Lucy (played with fragile insecurity by Sally Hawkins) the psychological and emotional strain of their existence becomes painfully clear during the second act where main characters Kathy Ruth and Tommy travel to and reside in Cottages in the English countryside. There they mature in different ways: by connecting with the outside world via day trips to a nearby town by being exposed to television and pop-culture and perhaps most significantly by connecting with each other through sexual exploration. But like all humans – and make no mistake donors are characteristically human – they each lose their innocence in some form as they grow. They end up scattered throughout the country reuniting years later to right the wrongs in their lives with the little time that they have left.
The circle of life in Never Let Me Go is painful and bleak but the creative team captures the environment with an eerie beauty and calmness that is as deceiving as Hailsham’s headmistress Emily played with aristocratic authority by Charlotte Rampling. The heightened atmosphere is amplified by Rachel Portman’s peculiar musical arrangements that slyly accentuate the mystery. Quite often cinematography is wrongly mistaken for photography in decently shot movies but at any moment in this film a single frame is literally worth a thousand words. Much praise must go to director of photography Adam Kimmel but you mustn’t overlook the uncanny abilities of Carey Mulligan Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield who respectively play Kathy Ruth and Tommy with such intimate delicacy that their tears will likely bring on some of your own.
A wrenching drama with a subtle backbone in science fiction you’d never know that you’re looking at a dystopian past because of the reserved production design and humble costumes. There aren’t any fantastic visions of a technologically superior society because there’s nothing superior about it. The unseen citizens of Romanek’s England proper though far from tabloid superstars are as aesthetically obsessed and superficial as the Paris Hilton's of 2010 America. Why else would they inflict pain and death on innocent lives? In the answer to that question lies one of the core themes of Never Let Me Go; the devaluation of life and further a lack of understanding of what makes us human.
If I’ve got any complaint with Never Let Me Go it has to do with the unavoidably frustrating inaction of the protagonists. Even after a devastating and climactic revelation where Kathy and Tommy’s hopes for prolonged life are crushed once and for all the thought of a Logan’s Run-style rebellion is never a consideration. They weren’t complacent but were perhaps fully aware of the futility of revolution. Rather than run from their destiny they opted to embrace it by cherishing every last moment they had together and that of course is the moral of this heartbreaking tale. It doesn’t make for a very exciting plot but it is an exemplary case of exceptional storytelling.