Cloud Atlas tells the story of 6 interconnecting lives and how their past shapes their futures; how one person turns from a murderer to a hero over the span of centuries, and how one brief act of kindness can inspire a future revolution.
Directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (Speed Racer, The Matrix) and Tom Twyker (Run, Lola, Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece of sci-fi/dramatic film making that challenges you intellectually and emotionally even as it entertains you. With 6 completely different story lines told throughout the course of it’s almost 3 hour running time, Cloud Atlas is a moving and occasionally shocking film experience. You don’t just watch the film, you are immersed in these separate stories and journey with the characters through this roller coaster of time.
This film is almost impossible to boil down to a simple sentence or brief synopsis. Each of the 6 stories are essentially short films that are tied together in the narrative through the use of the same actors playing different characters. The film asks a lot of the audience in that the separate stories are not told in chronological order, they are placed piecemeal in the film. You get a chunk of 1973 that transitions into an 1849 sea voyage that then transitions into 2144 Neo Seoul (Korea). The film gives you dates at the first segment then expects you to follow the events and remember where you are at any given time. It does not hold your hand. It expects that you will be paying attention to the proceedings and are smart enough to follow along with the characters.
While the first 20 minutes to half hour are a little difficult to follow due to the unique story structure, I found that I assimilated to the structure very well. The biggest bonus was that the segments never overstay their welcome and there is never a chance to be bored by the stories. And none of the stories are boring. Not only are there 6 intertwined stories, there are 6 good stories being told. If there is one weak link, and it is not very weak, it is the 1973 story. It is still a strong story and fitting for the film, it is just the least engrossing of the 6. And it is still better than most films out there.
What’s interesting about this film is that they are also telling 6 unique stories that are of different genres tied into one film. The 1849 story is a maritime period piece. The 1936 segment is a dramatic piece. The 1973 story is a mystery. The 2012 segment is almost more of a comedy, whereas 2144 is straight up sci-fi in the vein of Blade Runner. Then there is the last time period identified in the film as ‘106 winters after The Fall’, which is a post-apocalyptic, mild horror story involving cannibals. You wouldn’t think that these genres would tie together in a movie and they probably wouldn’t if it weren’t for the deft hand of the directors and brilliant editing. Essentially you have most of the genres of conventional film making in one film that ties together so deftly that it wasn’t until after watching the film and thinking about it that I realized what they had done.
You would think that these different genres and piecemeal placement of the segments would lead to a clunky narrative and lack of characterization and emotional connection with the players. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I found at the end of the film, as the characters arcs were coming to an end and each of the stories were finishing off, that a couple of the segments invoked a strong emotional reaction from me. While I didn’t cry, I was very close. This is a strange thing. There are very few films that elicit this kind of reaction and have such a strong emotional pull on me. Of all the films that have been made, only a handful have had this effect on me.
If there is one weak link in the film, and it really is a minor complaint but must be discussed, it is some of the makeup effects work. Each of the actors in the film plays multiple roles throughout the 6 stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Keith David, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, and James D’Arcy all play multiple roles and are made up to play other ethnicities or even genders (it is pretty damned funny seeing Elrond and The Red Skull and Mr. Smith as a big woman nurse in a nursing home). While some of the makeup effects work, some of them are distracting instead of immersing. Making eastern actors into Asian actors is a little off (especially Keith David’s black Asian and making Halle Berry into a white woman). While the work is fantastic by and large, it does get a little distracting. Tom Hanks seems to have the most fun with his prosthetic’s, though, and has some of the most over the top work done to him. It is actually kind of fun trying to pick out the actors in the different time periods, but that in itself is distracting to the narrative.
If you are looking for a film that is different than anything else you have ever seen, I would highly recommend Cloud Atlas. It is a masterpiece of film making and an amazing emotional journey through time. I cannot recommend it more highly, and am looking forward to seeing it again. While the film clearly seems to be a love it or hate it type of film, if you are a film lover and looking to be challenged by the material, check this out. It is a fascinating piece of challenging work under the guise of a big budget blockbuster.
**** out of ****