DIRECTED BY: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
WRITTEN BY: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
Cloud Atlas is not a perfect film. Actually, in a lot of ways, Cloud Atlas is an incredibly flawed film. It falls into the trap a lot of Wachowski penned films do in that it isn’t particularly subtle about its message. It constantly straddles the line between its sense profundity and overbearing preachy-ness. It’s incredibly long, and the last hour just feels like a constant climax. It lacks a sense of consistent pacing, and is self-indulgent to a fault. On their own, the “shorts” that make up this movie would never stand at all on their own as “good movies”. And yet…despite all this, Cloud Atlas, to me at least, is one of last year’s best movies, and in many ways its one of the most uniquely engaging films I have ever seen.
The film, like the novel it’s based on, is largely built around one single, core conceit: that being that this isn’t exactly just one film. The story of this movie is told through six very loosely connected stories, each one taking place in a different time period, and each one reflecting a different genre. One is a sea-faring adventure story, one is a 1930s romantic drama, there’s a political thriller, a modern British comedy, a science fiction epic, and a post-apocalyptic parable. While there are few narrative connections between these stories, they all carry one core thematic thrust: the perseverance of hope and love in the face of overwhelming adversity and cruelty. Instead of doing each of the stories sequentially, like other films might do, or in the “nesting doll” way the boom does it, all the stories play out at the same time, bouncing between each other along thematic and dramatic beats. Say a character is running away from somebody who’s trying to kill them, the movie might then jump to another of the stories at a point where the characters are running. Scenes of romance and moments of quiet reflection might be intercut with each other in a way that doesn’t so much interrupt as it does augment an emotional response in the audience along what could be called an arc. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does I can’t help but appreciate just how incredibly complex the editing and planning for this movie must have been.
You may ask “How on earth can a narrative like that be in any way coherent?” What this film does, rather than merely imply the characters are reincarnated in each story like the book does, is outright spell it out to you by using the same cast of actors as different characters in each of the different stories. Some actors appear in all six of them, some in only three or four. Sometimes they’re only minor characters, sometimes they’re the main character. Sometimes they might even just be a background character, appearing for only a few seconds. The film employs heavy make-up and prosthetics to change the actor’s age, race, and sometimes even gender (Hugo Weaving and drag is just as hilarious as it sounds). While the makeup can sometimes dip into the uncanny valley (especially the “Asian” makeup) on the whole it accomplishes what it needs to: changing the look of the actors so that you usually still know it’s them while letting them embody entirely different characters within the different stories. Some of the makeup is so good that you can’t even tell who’s underneath it. The credits give a rundown on who is who in each story and, no lie, I was shocked at just how well they were able to hide some of these actors in plain sight.
On the whole, though, this really isn’t a particularly character driven movie, despite (or maybe because) of the cast of hundreds. The characters in this movie, for better or worse, act more as vehicles for the themes and emotions of the movie rather than narrative drives in and of themselves. We never stay with these characters for too long, and their moments are fleeting and without much weight outside of the limited contexts of their own stories. That, I think, is simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. We are never really given a chance to truly connect with these characters, and for that reason some viewers might feel a little bit disconnected and kept at a distance. What that does allow, though, is for the viewer to not be caught up too much in one story, which helps the overall flow of the film as a whole. This also allows the film to really open up on repeat viewings where you’re able to shift your focus from the main thrust of the “narrative” and are able to see the subtler connecting threads, the personal journeys the “souls” of each actor goes through over the centuries. It’s not so much picking up on things you miss out on as it is looking at the film from a different perspective. It’s like a prism in that you’re able to look at the different facets of the same object and can discover a whole new way of experiencing the same thing.
In a way, how much you enjoy of Cloud Atlas depends largely on what you’re looking to get out of it. If you’re looking for a grand, interconnected story where everything ties together in a grand, uplifting climax…well this movie’s probably not for you. While there are a few direct connections here and there between the stories, their effect on the plot is either inconsequential, or effective, but innocuously mundane. This is a movie about big ideas; it’s about people and the connections and recurrences that drive the way we interact with each other both broadly and personally. It doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, and is, at its core, an incredibly optimistic film. It shows that despite all the cruelty and suffering people go through in their lives, we can still find ways to connect and find meaning. You might love it, you might not like it, you might even hate it, but it’s hard to ignore it once you’ve seen it; truly a unique experience.
RATING: * * * * (out of four)