Ambitious Cloud Atlas a Thought-Provoking Spectacle
A deathly ill attorney with precious papers to return home to his father harbors a fleeing slave aboard clipper ship cruising from the Pacific Islands back to the United States in 1849. A pre-WWII composer hides his affair with a scientist as he struggles to finish the symphony which will come to define his life. In 1973, a strident journalist, the daughter of a Korean War hero also an award-winning reporter himself, uncovers a conspiracy at a fledgling nuclear power plant putting her life in danger. A clone in 2144 Neo Seoul is freed from her bonds and awakened to a staggering truth giving her life newfound meaning and perspective. After a global catastrophe, a timid goat herder must find the strength to lead an interstellar traveler into the forbidden ruins of a civilization reduced rubble and battle against brutish cannibals if he hopes to see his clanís lineage survive.
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas © Warner Bros
Having not read David Mitchellís novel, I wasnít sure what to expect walking into Cloud Atlas, the almost three-hour, star-studded and highly ambitious dramatic science fiction spectacle co-written and co-directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix). I knew that the trio had hired the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, James DíArcy, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Keith David to play multiple characters of varying races and genders; I knew the movie was going to essentially span 500 years of human evolution. But how would it all connect together? Would the filmmakers be able to mesh the themes of the scenario with their bold thematic and visual ambitions? Or would it all collapse in upon itself, becoming nothing more than a curious afterthought known more for what it wanted to attempt than for what it actually accomplished?
For my part, I was hypnotized by Cloud Atlas, was held spellbound from the glorious opening moments all the way to the futuristic coda. I loved what the Wachowskis and Tykwer were attempting, found myself greedily lapping up the majority of their ideas and themes with overzealous glee. Does it always work? Do all of the threads tie back together in a wholly satisfying manner? No, not at all, but even when the filmmakers get lost in their own overzealous tendencies the movie still remains a towering humanistic marvel unlike anything else Iíve seen this year, and I have a feeling the more I ponder it the more this particular motion picture has the potential to become something of an enduring favorite worthy of significantly more contemplation.
I am not entirely certain the idea to have members of the cast play multiple roles is as much of a good thing, however, as the trio intended. There were times where I did find myself getting thrown out of the movie as I unintentionally giggled at the sight of Berry as a one-eyed Korean scientist, Weaving as an iron-fisted Nurse Ratched clone or Grant as a murderous tribal leader thirsting for blood. But other times this conceit works wonderfully, giving the movie an added layer of depth it arguably would not have had otherwise, the connective tissue between segments and eras all the more tangible more often than not because of it.
Itís hard to single out any of the actors as giving Ďgreatí or Ďstellarí performances considering the pressures put upon them to portray so many different individuals in so many different time periods. At the same time, Whishaw and Doona Bae are deserving of kudos, the former in particular (Iíd give him a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination), each of them managing to deliver performances transcending the inherent complications of the material and the way the Wachowskis and Tykwer chose to visualize it. Both of them mine emotions, go to places and achieve a certain form of brilliance. The two actualize much of what the filmmakers are going for in a way that feels effortless, even going so far as to transport things to an emotionally dexterous plateau it otherwise might not have ascended to.
The hard part of Cloud Atlas is that, even though I realize it is too long, that it isnít anywhere near as difficult to figure out or piece together as some might lead you to believe, Iím not sure Iíd want the directors to have removed a single section of it. Does a modern-era subplot involving Broadbent penning his memoirs while trying to escape from a gulag-like home for senior citizens need to be in the movie? Probably not, but so many of the moments during this section are so divine, so jovial, so gosh darn fun that I think my appreciation of the movie as a whole would have dulled somewhat had they not been a part of the finished feature.
Still, it isnít like the Wachowskis or Tykwer are known for their ability to hold back or show restraint. Sure they have their moments, and their best films (Bound and The Matrix for the former, Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer for the latter) showcase that they can do just that in spades. But they do have their self-indulgent moments, both of them more than willing to throw in a bunch of nonsensical chopsocky kung fu or absurdly ponderous montages of principals aimlessly wandering through twisty streets for no particular reason. Yet, again, while thatís the case at times here so many of those moments are so stunningly realized it would be difficult to imagine them excised, and I have a feeling Iíll have less of a problem in regards to any of this on future viewings.
Iím not going into a lot of the ins and outs of Cloud Atlas because I donít feel I need to. I really do think that the themes and ideas presented are not particularly difficult to comprehend, while at the same time also certain that itís better to do so on your own without my interference. This is the kind of movie that is best experienced knowing as few of the major intricacies as possible, discovery of the nuances part of the joy of this particular symphonic visual journey.
Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae in Cloud Atlas © Warner Bros
The Wachowskis and Tykwer have done something magnificent here, have delivered in a way that few other filmmakers would have or, for that matter, probably could have. Their movie is a testament to the human experience, birth to death, life to afterlife, going into the beyond with a knowing thought-provoking intelligence belying the cinematic spectacle. Cloud Atlas is a marvel, of that I feel there is no doubt, and as such my hope is that potential viewers in the here and now take a chance on it and donít leave it for future generations to discover decades down the road.
- Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: ÍÍÍ1/2 (out of 4)