I’m not going to spell out every role played by all of the very versatile and talented actors in Cloud Atlas. You can go to IMDB and learn that if you’re interested. Instead, I’m only going to outline the segments and the stars, then slightly bring them together, because knowing greater details will not help you understand anything any better or worse.
Before you ask, no, I did not read the book Cloud Atlas. In my admitted literal ignorance, I didn’t even know there was a book. Having said that, I don’t feel – although I’d have no way of knowing for sure – if there’s anything I didn’t understand having not read the book because I didn’t read the book. It’s possible that reading the book would have allowed the first half hour to progress more easily. I sat a little uneasily through the first half hour or so before I felt like I had a good grasp of what was happening. In the back of my head I remembered reading about a few people who weren’t shy about having walked out, but I was determined to make sure that only Problem Child would get that honor from me. Staying was a good move.
1. A money-hungry “doctor” slowly poisons a wealthy aristocratic representative of a slave-owning company. That wealthy aristocrat then has a moment to either help or betray a runaway slave.
2. A young, homosexual composer attempts to latch on as an apprentice to an aging but famous composer in an attempt to make a name for himself. That famous composer has a moment when he could greatly help or hurt that apprentice while also helping or hurting his own reputation.
3. A news reporter stumbles upon a plot involving secrets of a nuclear power plant, and someone insists her story stay silent. Others have opportunities to help her or prevent her from finding the real story while others want her dead.
4. An aging publisher, recently successful but selfish, finds himself held prisoner in and plots his escape from a home for the aged. This also leads to moments in which he looks back on choices made and not made in his life and the consequences resulting.
5. An Asian “fabricant,” (think “replicant”) learns what really happens when they’re no longer useful in their current form and is asked to join a rebellion. The fabricant faces moments to protect or endanger herself in order to either protect or endanger her people.
6. An advanced space traveler enlists the help of a more primitive tribesman to help her people as she helps him against violent marauders. That tribesman faces life and death decisions about himself, his family, and the space traveler.
Before I go further, let me warn that there’s a spoiler at the end of this, and that spoiler will follow the embedded trailer. The spoiler doesn’t give away an ending so much as it theorizes about something that you might prefer to theorize yourself without me leading or suggesting it. The purpose is not to give anything away but for those who have seen the movie who might want to agree, disagree, or just discuss. We now return to our regularly scheduled review.
There are physical connections between the segments, such as a written journal, a musical composition, and a common birthmark that looks like a shooting star. There are actions taken or not taken in one segment that affect what happens in others. There are fabulous make-up jobs that should or should have gained Oscar nominations. There are special effects, ninja fight scenes, love and hate stories, and a very short but “sweet” sex scene that I wish I had on a loop. But overall – what’s it about?
You’ll hear that it’s about reincarnation – and that’s included – but Cloud Atlas is more about class, separation, discrimination, and hope. Each segment features someone from a more “upper” class who relates in some way with someone in a “lower” class. The differences between the uppers and lowers are debatable to each of us, but they have to do with wealth, age, race, intelligence, sexual orientation, and species (sort of). In each story, someone is a victim of discrimination, someone is in a position to help, and critical decisions must be made. Some of those decisions affect that very moment, but other decisions will shift the future as well as the decisions of those in that shifted future.
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and a few other wonderful actors each play a part in each of the stories, but as for who does what isn’t that important so don’t spend too much time trying to figure out who is who. Gender and race flipping has caused complaints about the prosthetics used to transform a Caucasian into an Asian, but it’s not important at all. What’s important are the motivations of the people who find themselves in a moment to do what they might think is the “right thing.” Not all of them do, or at least not all of them do according to either themselves, the society at the moment, or the society of their future. Not everyone can deal with their “moment.” There are those who stand up, those who back down, and even those who take themselves out. There are those willing to take others out, be it legal or not, in order to protect their moment of perception of the future of themselves and their society.
This review might cause more questions than answers – and that’s good. I don’t want to give answers. That’s the films job. Well, let me restate that. The films job is to pose the question and the moment at which someone had to make a decision. The rest is up to us.
and now the semi-spoiler…
In the very beginning of the film, Tom Hanks’ “Zach” character from segment 6 is sitting around a fire and philosophizing about life and death and more life. Then we see him again at the very end and realize he’s talking to a group of children who are then called into their house by Menonym, Halle Berry’s future character from that segment in which Zach was rather tribal but helped Menonym reach an important mountain, provided she saved the life of his daughter.
Menonym clearly had cerebral abilities that Zach did not. Zach, however, had the birthmark possessed by important characters throughout all segments. Also, in that segment, Zach has a dream in which he sees flashes of moments from all the other characters with the same shooting star birthmark. Zach was also tormented by “Georgie,” a demonic hallucination that either guided him to do violent things and torment him guilt.
Seems to me that Menonym likely helped Zach get in touch with his past lives, understand them, and make peach with the demon. This is why Zach was so good at telling campfire stories, because he was more aware of where he’s been and also more aware of where he and others might be going. Where are we going? Of course we don’t know, but Zach believes we need not be afraid.