Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'Cloud Atlas' showcases the connectedness of all things

“Cloud Atlas” (2012). Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee. Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Screenplay: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski. Book: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Web Site: Trailer: Click here.

What do a 19th Century lawyer, a 20th Century composer, an investigative reporter, a frazzled book publishing executive, a genetically engineered human and a post-apocalyptic shepherd have in common? Surprisingly, plenty, their disparate realities full of unlikely connections that link them across the span of time. And those seemingly unrelated bonds are now brought to life in an inspiring and innovatively engaging new film, “Cloud Atlas.”

“Cloud Atlas” is arguably one of the most unique pictures to come out in a long time. It features six interwoven plot lines, spanning several centuries, that, at first glance, come across like stories capable of standing on their own. Yet the uncanny parallels that permeate them draw attention to a number of common threads, themes that connect the different narratives across time. These connections are further reinforced through the film’s stellar writing, its deftly executed editing and the performances of its principal cast members, most of whom play multiple roles in the picture’s various sequences, suggesting reincarnational, even karmic, links among the characters – and their eternal spirits – through the ages.

As the film opens, viewers are provided with setups for each of the following story lines:

* Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young lawyer working for his wealthy, slave-owning father-in-law (Hugo Weaving), seeks to curry favor with the old man by handling a business deal for him in the South Pacific’s Chatham Islands in 1849. In doing so, however, Adam gets to see firsthand the deplorable treatment inflicted upon the slave population, a circumstance that troubles him. Also, as one who's unaccustomed to the harsh conditions of this far-off land, he falls ill. He's placed under the care of Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), an ostensibly kind physician, but one whose treatments are questionable, to say the least. So, with his business concluded and his health failing, Adam sets sail for home. However, despite Dr. Goose’s seemingly attentive care, Adam grows weaker with each passing day, and, before long, he finds himself on a journey that places his life and his fortunes at risk. Adam’s only aid comes from an unlikely source – Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway slave for whom he secures freedom. But, given Adam’s progressively dire condition, it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to survive the trip back to America. And, even if he does, his life is unlikely to ever be the same again.

* Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is one of the most talented – and most unknown – contemporary composers in 1930s England. His lack of notoriety is fueled, in part, by the “reputation” that dogs him; despite his efforts at maintaining discretion, word of Robert’s sexual exploits with members of both genders has a way of leaking out. In fact, that reputation contributes to his decision to part company with the love of his life, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), an aspiring Cambridge physicist; he doesn’t want to sully the good name of his companion, even if his own is tarnished. Besides, Robert has an opportunity to advance his career by relocating to Scotland to work as an amanuensis for a once-famous but aging composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), who seeks to have his remaining pieces transcribed before his demise. Through his association with Ayrs, the young composer has a chance to birth his own material and to make new connections in the music world, as well as an opportunity to redeem himself. But will his senior associate allow that? And just how far is Robert willing to go to see his aspirations realized?

* Investigative reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is looking for the story that gives her that sought-after big break. Working as a journalist for a San Francisco alternative newspaper in 1973, she’s assigned to report on a controversial nuclear power plant. She initially feels like she’s being “handled” by the power company’s spin masters, such as CEO Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). However, through a series of seemingly improbable synchronicities, Luisa makes contact with several would-be whistleblowers – one of the plant’s chief physicists, Rufus Sixsmith (remember him?), who has compiled potentially devastating information about the facility's reactor, and Dr. Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks), one of Sixsmith’s colleagues, who discreetly keeps his peer’s findings secret. Will the damaging information be made public? Or will Luisa and her sources fall prey to the strong-arm silencing tactics of the power company’s enforcer, Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving)? The stakes are high for everyone involved – as well as the population of the nearby Bay Area.

* Financially beleaguered publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) unexpectedly becomes a hot commodity when one of his authors, gangster Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), brutally kills an unflattering critic at a present-day high-profile book release party in London. Timothy is initially appalled by the tragic events, but he’s quickly elated when the book becomes a surprise hit. Timothy’s jubilation is short-lived, though, when Dermot’s family puts the screws to him, demanding outlandishly enormous royalty payments – in cash. Timothy seeks assistance from his wealthy older brother, Denholm (Hugh Grant), but he summarily dismisses his junior sibling’s request due to his repeated failures to repay past debts. Denholm does offer his brother a place to go into hiding, however, a location where no one is likely to find him – ever.

* Life is very different in the high-tech, consumer-driven, totalitarian world of Korea’s Neo Seoul in 2144. “Pure-blood” humans live lives of privilege, comfort and luxury, served dutifully by genetically engineered beings known as “fabricants.” The cloned humans attend to the wants and needs of pure-bloods without question – most of the time. But when one of the fabricants, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), gets out of line (assisted by resistance fighter Hae Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), who knows the real reason behind the created beings’ existence), life in Neo Seoul is disrupted, threatening the prevailing social order – and the future – of a world precariously hanging in the balance.

* One hundred winters after “The Fall,” humanity has degenerated into an existence not unlike that found in the “Mad Max” movies. Even in a locale as supposedly idyllic as Hawaii, daily life is a challenge. Were it not for the occasional visits of “the Prescients,” the world’s last remaining civilized beings, life would be even more difficult for the tribal people of this lush but now dangerous land. But the Prescients call on the locals for reasons other than providing humanitarian assistance; they’re looking for something, and they need the natives’ help in finding it. They get that chance when the local abbess (Susan Sarandon) is unable to treat the deathly ill niece of Zachry (Tom Hanks), one of the island’s tribesmen. Meronym (Halle Berry), a Prescient healer, steps in to help, restoring the young woman’s well-being. In exchange for Meronym’s assistance, Zachry consents to his Prescient visitor’s request: that he escort her to the top of a nearby mountain, the home of what the locals believe to be evil spirits – and the alleged location of what Meronym and her colleagues are looking for. One can’t even begin to imagine what they’ll find there.

Thus begins the amazing odyssey that is “Cloud Atlas.” And what a ride it is, both for its story and the concepts it embodies.

As conscious creation practitioners are well aware, everything in our created reality is interconnected. Indeed, if we recognize that we use our thoughts, beliefs and intents to manifest the world around us, then we must also realize that we do so to create the totality of that surrounding reality. But this applies not only to the immediate world around us; it also relates to the greater existence of which we, as multidimensional beings, are a part. Our materialization initiatives thus extend beyond our localized existence, reaching into the other timelines, and even the other dimensional planes, in which other portions of our greater selves dwell. Because of that, we must endeavor to be conscious of the choices we make and the responsibility inherent in that, for these considerations carry implications that may be far more wide-ranging than we realize.

“Cloud Atlas” illustrates these notions brilliantly, and in myriad ways, from start to finish. It’s apparent in the recurrent themes connecting the various story lines. It’s present in the relationships and interactions among the characters (and their spirits) across time. It’s even visible in the undeniable sense of familiarity that bonds souls to one another from era to era, a connection more profound than anything that can be afforded by physical existence.

Given the intrinsic nature of connectedness, it can be applied to every aspect of existence, and, as conscious creators, we’re free to explore it from any angle we choose. Covering all the bases in this regard in any one film, however, would be unwieldy and impractical, and so “Cloud Atlas” wisely focuses on a select handful of areas, offering them up as examples of this larger principle. Throughout its various narratives, the picture explores such ideas as freedom vs. captivity, kindness vs. brutality, benevolence vs. greed and compassion vs. callousness. We repeatedly witness how the choices we make in these areas resonate through time, how the scenarios we create offer us opportunities to learn valuable life lessons, and how we may ultimately draw upon these experiences to grow and develop as human beings.

All of this, of course, assumes that reincarnation is a given and that we each get opportunities to live out different kinds of lives. Our spirits can don the costumes of both villain and hero, creator and destroyer, healer and killer, as well as the trappings of both genders and all ethnicities (all clearly borne out through the multiple character portrayals of the principal cast members). These assorted incarnations allow us to experience the full range of probabilities that conscious creation makes possible and provide us with opportunities to work out our karma, in all cases for better or worse, enabling us to become the individuals – and the spirits – we’re truly capable of being.

“Cloud Atlas” is an incredibly ambitious project, well executed in virtually every respect. The performances are terrific across the board, an amazing feat considering the demanding multiple characterizations involved (wait until you see the full list of who played who in the closing credits!). It’s also technically brilliant, breathtakingly beautiful in its cinematography and special effects and masterful in its sets, designs, costumes and makeup, all backed up by an ethereal, emotive musical score. It draws inspiration from a wide range of films in a variety of genres, including everything from “Mutiny on the Bounty” to “The China Syndrome” to “Blade Runner,” successfully paying homage to them all but without ever becoming a blatant impersonator.

The film is, admittedly, a little slow in the first 30 minutes, but, given the setup work involved in getting six story lines off the ground, that’s easily overlooked. Likewise, the movie has a tendency to wear its metaphysics on its sleeve, but, considering the subject matter involved, I’d rather the film overcompensate on this aspect than cryptically understate its intentions. Perhaps the only area in need of some serious tweaking would be in some of the dialogue of the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian sequence; it’s a little too “Mad Max” for my taste, at times almost indiscernible and a tad pretentious.

Nevertheless, at the risk of overstatement, “Cloud Atlas” truly is epic filmmaking, one of the most impressive releases in recent years. I must confess that I had some reservations about this picture going in, given that it was the product of the makers of “The Matrix” series, a collection of films that I thought was highly overrated. Not so with this offering; it lives up to every bit of its billing. The picture is best enjoyed on the big screen, so be sure to catch it in theaters while you have the opportunity; you’ll want to savor every grand, sweeping moment as it majestically unfolds before you. And if it affects you as much as it did me, you’ll emerge from the darkness walking on air. But then with a title like “Cloud Atlas,” who would expect anything less?

Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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