Written & Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, and Doona Bae
MPAA: R – For Violence, Language, Sexuality/Nudity, and some Drug Use]
The novel Cloud Atlas written by David Mitchell was considered by everyone to be unfilmable. He even said himself “I can honestly say that the only film-related thought I had when I was writing this was: what a shame nobody will ever film this.” A novel as ambitious, groundbreakingly original, and impossibly dense as Cloud Atlas is not only “hard” to make on a filmmaking or a storytelling level; it’s impossible to make on a studio level, considering just about every Hollywood movie avoids taking risks like the plague, and a story as epic as this needs the kind of budget only Hollywood could allow.
And yet, despite all the odds, Cloud Atlas was made. Independently produced thanks to financial backing from various foreign markets and directed by three talented auteurs, Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy and the underrated Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer), the product is one of the ballsiest, most daringly original mainstream releases in a long time. A 2 hour and 45 minute sprawling epic that spans centuries and even genres to tell a story of human kindness prevailing over evil. But best of all: Despite its overreaching ambitions and far-out scope, it actually doesn’t suck. Better than that, it’s one of the best movies of the year so far. The fact that a risk like this ended up working on just about every level it sets out to work in is something to behold. In short: You need to see this movie immediately.
Cloud Atlas tells six intertwining stories that each tell the same theme (the weak exploited by the strong, the old being overpowered by the young, human kindness being overrun by cynical greed, etc.) but in increasingly complex ways. The first story takes place in the mid-1800s in which a lawyer named Adam Ewing befriends a slave on a sea-faring vessel. The second is in the Belgium of the 1930s where a struggling bisexual musician named Robert Frobisher hopes to jump-start his career back up by joining forces with an aging composer. The third skips to the 70s with a muckraking reporter named Luisa Rey discovering a nuclear conspiracy. The fourth is the only one taking place in the present (as of this writing, 2012) with an old publishing tycoon getting swept up with gangs and evil retirement homes. The fifth fast forwards way the hell out into the 22nd century of Korea with a fabricant entitled Sonmi ~451 slowly gaining knowledge about the faults of her dystopian society. And finally, the sixth story brings us to the Big Island of Hawaii “106 winters after The Fall”, where a shepherd named Zachry is forced to decide between the intellectual progress of “The Prescients”, who have access to pre-Fall future-technology that still works, or giving into the temptations of his village’s manifestation of the Devil himself, “Old Georgie”.
Confused yet? Well, keep up! There’s an exam after this!
In all seriousness, despite all of these wild, drastically different elements being juggled in front of you, the movie is not confusing in the slightest. It takes quite a bit of viewing work to process the insane amount of information that heads the viewer’s way, but it’s made easy to pay attention to because the movie is never boring in the slightest. Important plot details, whether they be in dialogue scenes or action scenes, are always being shown, and the way it switches from story to story feels absolutely effortless thanks in large part to one of the best uses of hyper-editing that you’ll find in any modern film. And while each of the story’s genres are so wildly disparate from one another, they still feel like they share a connective tissue. This is because the Wachowskis and Tykwer are truly in tune with the thematic connections that bring these stories together and dive head-first into them rather than restraining themselves.
The way it’s edited makes doubly sure that the connections between these storylines are more than just thematic. They also connect on emotional levels, sometimes intercutting to enhance a specific feeling. This is especially note-worthy when the various “climaxes” build up on each other to create absolutely intense and moving moments. A chase scene in one story intercuts with a dramatic scene in another story. A love scene is played alongside a dream in which two characters from an entirely separate story reunite. Action scenes and fight scenes play out simultaneously. Various sequences of heart-break and character deaths are shown side-by-side. The list goes on. Seeing the movie play out is like watching a painting or a symphony being completed right before your eyes, as all the various pieces come together in a way that is glorious and magnificent in just about every sense of the words.
And the performances. Dear god, the performances! The film features a stellar cast consisting of established stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving; up-and-comers like Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, and David Gyasi; foreign actors like Doona Bae and Xun Zhou; even character-actor extraordinaire Keith David gets a major role, who you may remember as Childs from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the voices of Captain David Anderson and The Arbiter from the Mass Effect and Halo video games, respectively.
Each of these actors end up playing multiple characters throughout the various storylines. But some of these transformations are more than just mere name-changes. Many times, they’ll play characters of different races and ethnicities. Sometimes, they’ll switch genders. This is done to portray these actors playing “souls” rather than just characters, who end up recurring in each time period as a means to further connect the stories, and also in order to show concepts such as race and gender to be completely irrelevant in relation to the bigger picture: The human race.
This is accomplished with the help of some extraordinary make-up work that is incredibly convincing while also straddling that line of also allowing you to recognize many of the actors behind the make-up so that you can clearly see the connections. But what’s especially impressive is how the importance of their roles changes along with their appearance. Tom Hanks is a hero in one story, only to switch to a villain in another. Halle Berry is the main character of one story, but in another story, she’s literally just an extra in the background. Doona Bae is one of the most important characters in the whole film, the protagonist of the future-Korea segment, but when she appears in the ’70s storyline, she’s just a background character who ends up serving to be the deus ex machina of the protagonists of that story.
And my oh my, each of the actors are absolutely terrific no matter what role they’ve saddled up in, charging head-first into this extremely confounding material with bravery. Tom Hanks is able to switch from sinister to truly sympathetic on a dime, in one of his most nuanced performances since Cast Away. Halle Berry hasn’t been this good in a long, long time; probably since her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball. Jim Sturgess, an actor who I normally consider to be bland, is able to show off both his dramatic chops and his potential as a leading action hero in both the 1850s storyline and the Neo-Seoul storyline, which has him donning impressive Asian make-up. Ben Whishaw is utterly heartbreaking as the bisexual musician Robert Frobisher, in a performance that I hope guarantees him the American recognition he deserves (At least before he plays Q in the upcoming 007 movie). Jim Broadbent, despite being the oldest actor in the cast, is utterly lively and delightful especially in his protagonist role as Timothy Cavendish. But the biggest surprise of all is Korean actress Doona Bae (Who you may recognize from the popular Korean films The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) as the “fabricant” Sonmi ~451 during the dystopian future segment. Her transformation from naive damsel to strong, intelligent revolutionary is exceptional, and it also deserves some American recognition.
The rest of the cast is strong despite not being given as much to do as side-characters (Susan Sarandon is sadly underused), but Hugo Weaving still stands out in his most memorably sinister villain role(s) in a long time, and it’s really cool to see Hugh Grant playing someone other than another version of himself.
The other big trick up the film’s sleeve aside from the race/gender-bending casting is the way it melds just about every single genre it can extend it’s reach on. Two period pieces–one a drama, the other a romance–, a conspiracy thriller, an absurdist British comedy, a dystopian sci-fi allegory, and a post-apocalyptic adventure all occupy the same space. Literally the only basic genre I can think of that isn’t utilized is horror, and even then, there are some slight horror elements in both the 1850s and the post-apocalypse story. On paper, this melding of wildly different genres and tones shouldn’t work. But again, the Wachowskis and Tykwer pull it off thanks to truly embracing their connective meanings. It’s all done not as a bunch of tones that don’t fit, but as an embracing of all the emotions of the human experience. Joy, grief, excitement, tension, love, and intelligence are all celebrated in each story.
It also works because, while the movie is technically six different stories, they are essentially the same story told in six different ways and styles. Each and every one is about the greedy vs. the humble. The savage vs. the civilized. The strong exploiting the weak. The young overshadowing the old. The weak are meat, but the strong do eat. So while we are seeing six different stories, they share the same themes and, therefore, the same emotional catharses, thus making them all satisfying in their own way.
Cloud Atlas is a film that is so big-hearted and so earnest in its emotions that many will inevitably dismiss it as schmaltz, what with today’s age of cynicism. Others will call it pretentious for having easily identifiable themes that don’t really reveal a truth within human-nature so much as it does remind you of an already established moral truth. Yet, despite those qualities, I will still dare call Cloud Atlas a “profound” film. While its themes are very basic and, in some ways, cliche, the way it’s told and structured elevates this material to end up revitalizing these scenes. So while it has been done to death, the fact that we get to see it done in a fresh, new way ends up reminding us just how important these life-affirming, morally honest themes are.
All of this combines into a staggeringly magnificent celebration of the human soul. Our actions all have consequences. They will continue to ripple throughout human history to inspire someone, whether it be on a micro level (A journal that encourages a man to be free of a withholding shrew) or a macro level (A video that inspires a social revolution). We will continue to live on through those actions, sometimes even transforming from villain to hero along the way. Corruption will always exist no matter which time period you’re in, yet while it’s something that can never be stopped, freedom from that corruption is continually worth fighting for. If that’s not a beautiful, life-affirming message, then I don’t know what is.
Final Verdict: Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious films of our time. The fact that it’s also a masterpiece is even more baffling. Equal parts intellectually and emotionally stimulating, able to be both incredibly moving and wickedly intelligent, featuring an ensemble of some of the best performances of the year, providing gorgeous eye candy and a heart-wrenchingly beautiful score, Cloud Atlas is the can’t-miss event film of the year. Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that there’s nothing else like it. An experience to behold, and one of the very best films of 2012. Come January, you will see it sitting somewhere in my top 3 films of the year, without a doubt.
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on WordPress, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out CinEffect with their own reviews, articles, or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to accept my role as one drop in a limitless ocean. Because what is any ocean but a multitude of drops.