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Cloud Atlas (Blu-ray Review)

23 May, 2013 By: John Latchem

Box Office $27.11 million
$28.98 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.
Stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant.

How does one go about adapting a novel as structurally specific as David Mitchell’s 2004 tome Cloud Atlas, a sweeping anthology that spans 500 years?

The way he wrote it, Mitchell considered the book unfilmable. It tells six seemingly unrelated stories that somehow tie into each other through a different storytelling method, before turning around and ending each story in the reverse order in which they were introduced.

While episodic anthologies are not unheard of in cinema (Pulp Fiction, for example), the experience of film as a storytelling medium does not easily lend itself to such devices, especially in theaters when audiences don’t have the ability to flip back and forth between pages (a limitation that home video doesn’t have).

In the first story, a man (Jim Sturgess) helps a former slave earn his keep on a sailing ship in the Pacific in 1841, while he himself seems to be dying of a mysterious ailment despite the treatment of his shifty doctor (Tom Hanks); the second story concerns a young composer (Ben Whishaw) hoping to gain respectability by working with a musical legend, relating his tale through letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) in 1936; the third story, set in 1973, finds a reporter (Halle Berry) investigating the murder of an older Sixsmith, who seems to be tied into a conspiracy involving a nuclear reactor; the fourth story relates a comedic adventure in 2012 involving a put-upon book publisher (Jim Broadbent) who is tricked into checking himself into a mental hospital by his jealous brother; the fifth story takes us to the future city of Neo Seoul in 2144, where Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a member of the clone workforce, has has joined a rebellion against an oppressive corporate government; finally, in a post-apocalyptic future in which Sonmi is worshipped as a goddess, humanity has regressed into tribal life, as a villager (Hanks) helps a visitor (Berry) from the last remaining technological society on Earth try to contact an off-world colony to rescue them from the irradiated planet.

In translating Cloud Atlas to the screen, the co-directing, co-screenwriting trio of Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix) have deviated from the book’s structure by focusing instead on the thematic similarities between the chapters to tell a single story of the human condition through six interweaving narratives. The underlining statement is one of humanity continuing a pattern of cruelty in pursuit of greed and an overarching quest for redemption in order to survive.

The book developed these themes by suggesting the souls of certain characters carried over from one story to the next, an idea presented in the film by having the same actors (and what a cast!) play different roles in each narrative, which adopt the tenants of a different genre of filmmaking (seafaring adventure, period drama, film noir, farce, sci-fi, dystopia).

It’s a fascinating way to make a film and deserves admiration just for the sheer audacity of it. Cloud Atlas is densely packed even at nearly three hours, and it certainly requires at least two viewings, and probably more, in order to digest all the details and connections, and how some story points at the end lead to payoffs near the beginning. As noted in the Blu-ray bonus material, it’s a testament to the unique ability of cinema to dispatch with the notion of linear time as a storytelling constriction. And yet a part of me remains curious how the film would have played had they tried to follow the pattern of the book.

In any case, this is an ideal movie for home video, which allows viewers to take their time to soak in the details of the story elements and jump back and forth between scenes in order to absorb it all.

The Blu-ray extras are presented simply enough, as a series of behind-the-scenes focus points with a total running time of about an hour. These segments are really valuable in clarifying a lot of the intent of the filmmakers while helping to crystallize the subtext embedded throughout the film that many viewers might never realize otherwise.

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