A Look Back: Cloud Atlas

In “Wolf of Wall Street,” there’s a running gag in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character asks various people to “sell me this pen.” Of course, none of them could sell a pen to someone who needs to sign a loan for a million dollars pronto and had no other writing implements, as simple as it sounds, but I thought of it when I decided to write a review of the movie “Cloud Atlas,” and wanted to come up with a catchy quick description: “It’s X Meets Y.” I thought this would be easy, but alas this stumped me. But I can answer other questions to explain it, should the need arise.

Q: OK, then, what about summing up the subject of “Cloud Atlas” in one word?

A: Reincarnation. And while there are movies out there on this topic, none attempt to cram six stories into a single movie.

Q: Why would anyone attempt that in the first place?

A: Because it’s based on the eponymous novel by David Mitchell, a British author who is a genius, but unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate onscreen. Each section is divided into two parts, so you get twelve sections overall in the book. However, the movie version switches around quite a bit, and you may feel lost if you’ve never read the book. Because each section features a whole new cast of characters, plus each takes place in a different era including a future dystopia and an even more future world (which is far more primitive than the first future).

Q: Whew. How long did it take you to figure out what was going on?

A: About an hour into the movie. More or less, without having read the novel. In addition, the characters are played by a handful of rotating actors who, even disguised, are more or less recognizable, depending on the makeup and costume job. To jazz things up, one even plays a minor role in drag.

Q: I’m already confused.

A: Just wait until you see the movie! Anyway, story one is about a naïve young man (Jim Sturgess) who faints while wandering around in the wilderness circa 1830’s and is taken under the care of his ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks) who pretends to be helpful but who actually has questionable motives. Luckily, Keith David intervenes and teaches Jim an important lesson about prejudice.

Q: So Tom stretches and plays a bad guy. Anyone else?

A: Tom also plays a primitive cave-man type in the future who is tormented by visions of an evil spirit (Hugo Weaving), but is helped by the aid of a kindly primitive woman (Halle Berry). Tom is perpetually agitated, but because he speaks in a dialect and sounds like he has a mouthful of mud, it takes awhile to figure out why. Luckily, once the viewer gets a vision of Hugo, too, all doubt vanishes.

Q: Who else does Halle play?

A: Her biggest role is Luisa Rey, a naïve but determined young woman, who stumbles into a 70’s-era mystery and risks her life to solve it to satisfy her deceased journalist father.

Q: Wait, how does any of this tie in with…

A: Halle’s story is eventually condensed into a detective novel which is sent in a fourth segment to Jim Broadbent, who plays a curmudgeonly publisher who, after going to his brother to ask for help with debt, is incarcerated in a nursing home as revenge, and must stage a dramatic breakout involving several other residents. His story in turn makes it into a movie, which is later viewed in a future dystopia by Doona Bae as a video.

Q: If you say so. What’s the difference between Doona’s future and Tom’s?

A: Doona plays a genetically engineered clone who is designed to work at a McDonald’s-like fast food joint for a certain number of years. However, she is recruited to become a more intelligent version of herself, and eventually, helps stage an uprising against the ruling class. In Tom’s future, everything has devolved, so it’s not unlikely you’ll think it’s supposed to be the past.

Q: What’s the final story?

A: Ben Wishaw plays a pianist who is post-humorously narrating the segment to his former boyfriend (James D’Arcy), about how he fell into the nefarious clutches of “mentor” (Jim Broadbent). At the end, he envisions breaking a lot of china, which is one of the movie’s many metaphors.

Q: So it’s like a Rubik’s Cube? Confusing, but once you start lining up the different sides, it gets simpler?

A: Exactly.

Q: Is there any shortcut to figuring out who the reincarnated characters are?

A: They all have a birthmark. Comet-shaped. Really.

Q: But what about the cloud atlas?

A: One character says it would be nice to have one. Really.

Q: Would you recommend it?

A: Only if you’ve read the book. Forcing someone to watch it otherwise is like throwing them in deep water unexpectedly without a life jacket.

Q: Thank you.

A: You’re welcome.

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