Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

Movie still: Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks as Zachry and Halle Berry as Meronym in Cloud Atlas.
Photo by Jay Maidment

Movie Poster: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Screenplay by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski

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

How long is Cloud Atlas? 172 minutes.
What is Cloud Atlas rated? R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.

CLR [rating:4.5]

A brilliant adaptation of an “unfilmable” novel.

Watching Cloud Atlas, a magnificently orchestrated work of cinema, is like watching one of your most vivid dreams (the kind that is both ludicrously fantastical and disturbingly real) being projected on an enormous screen in front of you. Like the surreal adventures we have when we go to sleep at night, Cloud Atlas introduces the viewer to worlds they would have otherwise never imagined. Based on the brilliantly inventive novel by David Mitchell, the film is directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, the only filmmakers capable of telling such a massive and intricate story. The three also wrote the script together, spending almost four years tearing the novel apart and examining every minute detail.

At its core, Cloud Atlas has much in common with the Matrix trilogy and Run Lola Run, the films with which the Wachowskis and Tykwer (respectively) altered the filmmaking landscape over a decade ago. Spanning over 500 years and following more than a dozen characters, the film is composed of six separate stories that do not intertwine (see Magnolia, Love Actually) but instead link from one to the next with the sense that each character is re-living his or her life again and again. While the word “reincarnation” is never used, the sense that this is what Mitchell intended is undeniable. Like the resistance fighters in The Matrix or the protagonist in Run Lola Run, the characters of Cloud Atlas are given the chance to correct mistakes from “past lives.”

Instead of presenting the stories chronologically (as Mitchell does in his book before reversing the chronology halfway through), the directors alternate between the six stories (see The Hours) which allows their connections and themes to become apparent at various times throughout the film. One moment, we may be aboard a ship in 1849 which is sailing to San Francisco and carrying a very ill lawyer (Jim Sturgess) and the strange doctor who is taking care of him (Tom Hanks); the next moment, we may be in Neo Seoul circa 2144 where a fabricant named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) tries to escape the monotonous servitude for which she has been genetically engineered to perform.

Far from a gimmick of indulgence on the part of the directors, the result of this approach is a sense that the audience has been a part of the story the whole time, just like the characters themselves. The characters (or their souls, more accurately) are experiencing the same struggles, conflicts, happiness and anger again and again and we the audience begin to sense what this seemingly endless cycle may feel like. We watch two lovers, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) and Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), torn apart by the judgmental world of 1936, while at the same time we see the violence of a post-apocalyptic Hawaii (in 2314) threaten to end the budding romance of Meronym (Halle Berry) and Zachry (Hanks, again).

One of the most vocal criticisms of Cloud Atlas will undoubtedly be the half dozen or so characters played by many of the lead actors. Detractors will likely try to argue that the film becomes a game of “spot the actor” given the heavy makeup and prosthetics used to transform the actors from one incarnation into the next. This wasn’t an oversight on the part of the Wachowskis and Tykwer. The repetition of actors gives even greater depth to the sense of “Hey, haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” that many of the characters experience throughout the film.

Fans of the Wachowskis and Tykwer may leave feeling disappointed or deflated due to fact that Cloud Atlas is more about storytelling than spectacle. Visually the film is beautiful, with amazingly detailed set design and fantastically authentic-looking costumes. But this is not another Matrix film or Run Lola Run: The Sequel. Here, the directors have come together to tell a story, not to blow audiences away with groundbreaking visual effects. The script flows with the ease of a symphony, each note leading into the next as if it was always meant to be there. (As if he didn’t have enough to do, Tykwer also helped compose the film’s score which is one of the most moving and emotional of the last decade.)

While some of the actors are more adept at transformation than others, the performances overall are terrific. Hanks, the most prominent recurring face, is clearly enjoying every minute of screen time, playing like a child with a new toy on Christmas morning. Though he does a very good job throughout the film, we know we are always watching Tom Hanks. Jim Broadbent provides perhaps the film’s most diverse set of characters, playing a drunken sea captain in 1849, a megalomaniacal composer in 1936 and an elderly publisher in present day who is committed to an old folks’ home against his will. If any of the actors deserve to have award chatter surround their work in this film, it is Broadbent.

Cloud Atlas is a cinematic experience unlike any other. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have delivered a film more ambitious than any of their other work with themes much more personal than they have, independently, explored before. It is a thrilling journey and an example of how magical cinema can be.

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Cloud Atlas Trailer

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