posted 2012-12-18 18:44:04

Our Lives Are Not Our Own

A review of the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas 

Alexandra Heidler

Associate Arts &Entertainment Editor

Image courtesy of
Any book-to-film conversion will make a fan nervous, and the same has been true for the Wachowski siblings’ latest film, Cloud Atlas. This ambitious project follows a series of characters, intertwined throughout time in both past, present, and future by way of love, conspiracy, business, and humanity. What makes this story so appealing is the complicated network of relations over history and time that the characters seemingly give and inherit from one to the other. Only a handful of actors are used to morph from one point to the next in parts both big and small, leading and supporting. The effect is a finely woven story that keeps you contemplating its layered message.

As opposed to the book, filmgoers will find much more explanation and access to the subtle connections. A visual representation of likeness helps the audience grasp the concept of singularity at the heart of the human race, which is juxtaposed against the expansive backdrop of the story ranging from early 1800s ship routes in the slave trade business, the use of nuclear technology in the ‘70s, the English literary world of 2012, all the way into the far future in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii. As the human experience unfolds, the various stories begin reflecting and paralleling the same experience of those behind, by the side and in front of them. We find kinks in the story that stick out and resonate several times. The shifts between past, present and future are executed much differently in the movie than they are in the book. Although the chronological change is gentle at first, it is eventually sped up, creating a climactic experience. The use of one actor for several characters helps to create a kind of romantic notion that we, as people, are all experiencing the same emotions and hardships fastened together over years, location and belief system, despite any transition in time or space.

Tom Hanks makes a stunning set of characters, ranging from a playful, wheezing doctor, to a ‘70s nuclear scientist, to a futuristic tribal shepherd. Hank’s ability to capture a true sense of individuality by altering his speech, body language and facial expressions is what gives the film an added layer of entertainment. It is easy to spot a grin on Hank’s face even in his smaller positions, and as an audience you can see that he thoroughly enjoys his work as an actor.

Wachowski fans will be pleased to find Hugo Weaving, famous for his role in The Matrix as Agent Smith, making another run for the role of the ultimate bad guy. The makeup for each character is painstakingly made to fit the moment. Weaving’s characters are given no less attention, with his transformation as “Ole Georgie,” the local evil spiritual presence, who urges Hank’s shepherd to rape and kill a technologically advanced newcomer, played by Halle Berry, who’s come to scout his lands. Weaving’s green face and feathered fingernails float on screen as he whispers fiercely into the local’s mind. Fans of the cult classic Priscilla Queen of the Desert will find Weaving once again in drag. In the film’s modern-day story of 2012, Weaving is transformed into an iron-fisted female caretaker, reminiscent of the Nurse Ratchet character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 

The use of several characters for each individual actors is a very clever ruse, but it isn’t always executed well. As Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, 21) is shaped into a rebellious class leader in a futuristic Korea named “Neo Seoul”, the ethnic slanting of the eyes typical of Asian ethnicities makes him appear more like an underdeveloped photograph. Giggles came from various parts of the audience when a particularly new and off-beat transformation attempted to make itself known. Halle Berry makes it best as a pot-smoking journalist from the ‘70s trying to crack a nuclear plant conspiracy, but her transformation into an upper-class Jewish wife from post-WWII makes her look comical. It is to the film’s disadvantage to use such recognizable and iconic actors in this way.

However odd the aesthetics, the work and presence felt in this film are worth the 164 minutes of action and soul-searching. There are plenty of dark moments when people are not who we want them to be, and our characters are emptied out onto the screen for all that they’re worth. The vulnerability in these characters never feels like melodrama, which is impressive given the magnitude of the project. It would be easy to let the beautiful scenery, A-list actors and historical conquest relax into an impressive pulp, but the Wachowski siblings have shaped these fine ingredients into a movie of high pedigree. The twist on the concept of past, present and future being so relatable is certainly a challenging one, and the film makes good on most of its promises.