To write about ‘Cloud Atlas’ in any way is a difficult task. To condense such an epic, demanding, and complex tale into the simplest common denominator is next to impossible.
So right off the bat, let me say this movie is worth not only one viewing, but two. It should be required viewing.
The movie is six interweaved stories spanning over thousands of years and sharing the same actors in makeup and CGI enhancements playing similar, yet different, roles. The first story takes place on a Pacific voyage during the 1880s; the second story is about a bisexual composer in the 1930s; the third story is a 1970s murder mystery; the fourth story is a farce in the modern day with a man who becomes trapped in an old person home; the fifth story is a futuristic adventure story with clones, Big Brother and big ideas; and the sixth and final story takes place in the far-far-future when humanity has gone back to the basics and civilization is in ruins.
All the stories connect in multiple, subtle ways. The most obvious is that the same bunch of actors—an all-star cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and several others—all play multiple roles over multiple centuries (more of that thematic idea at the end). This is never explicitly mentioned in the book, but in an interview the author does say that the characters are all reincarnations of each other. Every story is mentioned in the next or prior one, either read by a character or viewed as a film by the characters or mentioned or heard about. Also, a musical number made by the composer pops up every once in a while and becomes the thematic thread—literally and figuratively—that glues everything together.
The film is based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell (‘Black Swan Green’), which was a finalist for the 2004 Booker Prize. The book was touted as a ‘flawed masterpiece’, sometimes becoming too top-heavy for its own far-reaching aims; in many ways, because the movie is very faithful, it inherits the same problem.
It’s no secret that moviegoers—at least Americans, for the most part—don’t want thoughtful, intelligent films. They want big, dumb movies that go boom. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a movie where if you turn off your brain for even a second, or make a trip to the bathroom, you can very easily become lost in the labyrinth that even a seasoned viewer can become dazed in. In a way, it’s a breath of fresh air, especially if you’ve been waiting for a film that not only announces the (somewhat) return of the Wachowski siblings, but also have been waiting for a film to show you something you haven’t seen before.
The quality of the acting ranges from good to superb; no one is subpar. This is a movie where the characters are very thin—it’s not really about individuals, but the group known as humankind. And while the acting is good, the makeup is of varying quality—some of the nose-jobs are horrific, and the CGI ‘enhancements’ just become disturbing. Some of the makeup is good, yes (many of the actors I never even noticed in gender-crossing, race-bending roles), but others are an eyesore.
The film is a technical wunderkind, which should go as no surprise when you find out the budget (a little over $100 million) and the three directors who worked (the Wachowskis, who worked on ‘The Matrix’ trilogy; and Tom Tykwer, who made ‘Lola Rennt [Run Lola Run]’ and ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’). The cinematography is sumptuous, the colors are vibrant, the effects all convincing—at times breathtaking (especially in the fifth story, in the clone future, which contains shades of ‘Blade Runner’). And the few times the story delves back into the past—in the 1880s, 1930s, and 1970s—there is an astonishing attention to detail to make it all convincing.
In the end, the only possible downside to the movie—besides its extraordinarily intellectual unfurling—is that it has too big of ideas, even for its epic scope and runtime (nearly 2 hours 50 minutes). While the repetition of actors in multiple roles, bending gender and race, is meant to show the universality of the human condition, and how the past can influence the future, much else of what the film says is either said halfheartedly or said once, then contradicted soon after. For example, we are never sure if the published adventures of the Pacific voyage are true; and the farce with the old man might be just a screenplay; and the 1970s murder mystery might just be a novel being read by a publisher: in the end, is every story in this film just part of a wide web of imaginations spinning together, all caught in the far-future story (which may be the only true story in the film)?
These are the kind of questions that the film brings up, and that will promote discussion for days—maybe weeks—afterwards. And just like the book, you will remember the movie, and want to see it again, and maybe again. And in the end, even if you were not satisfied—‘Cloud Atlas’ leaves an impression. And that means it does have a power, and it is an achievement.