For all the sequels and blockbuster we have gotten this year, an ambitious, high-budgeted, semi-independent film has certainly tried to push itself to the top as well. Cloud Atlas is one of the more unique films I have seen this year, as it not only swaps between six different storylines, but six different time periods, which range from the 1840s to way into the future. Add to that a handful of actors, all playing a variety of different roles and you can see why it is a very intriguing project, developed and directed by three talented filmmakers. Some flaws aside, I found Cloud Atlas to be incredibly well structured, given the complex nature of the story being told, and a wonderful work of art, after discounting the awkwardness of putting familiar actors in odd makeup. It will surely be divisive, but I was really into what co-directors Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer challenged themselves to make.
Robert Frobisher: I believe there is a another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world and I’ll be waiting for you there.
Without going into overkill with plot summary, I can say that Cloud Atlas spans time to tell an epic sort of story about humankind. Several characters are involved in each of the six stories being told, played by many of the same actors, with a possible implied connection. With the times being presented, 1849 shows us the story of an American’s (Jim Sturgess) journey home, traveling by ship over the Pacific Ocean. 1936 presents the story of a poor English musician (Ben Whinshaw), composing a masterwork in Belgium. 1973 has a young journalist (Halle Berry) trying to uncover the truth behind a nuclear power plant in Northern California. 2012 finds an elderly man (Jim Broadbent) on the run from gangsters and wrongfully confined in a nursing home. A near dystopian future, set in Neo Seoul, tells the story of a clone (Doona Bae) escaping her captivity and working to incite a rebellion. Lastly, in a distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii, one man (Tom Hanks) teams up with one of the last members of a technologically advanced group of people in an effort to save what is left of humanity. There are lots of connections between each story and there will be many revelations seen during each story’s unfolding.
Cloud Atlas was originally written as a novel by David Mitchell in 2004. The film was co-written, co-produced, and co-directed by Lana & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. It should also be worth pointing out that the funding for the film was made up of a number of independent sources, while Warner Brothers only covered some of the budget for this film. I mention this, because while the film does have some missteps in the way it treats itself quite seriously in some instances (despite some purposeful humor), lacking any sort of self-awareness in favor of self-importance, the fact is that these filmmakers really care about this story and did the best with what they had to make it an engaging experience. As opposed to being a throwaway piece of experimental filmmaking, it seems clear that the effort was put forward to make a compelling and unique experience.
Cloud Atlas lasts nearly three hours and while it does not necessarily fly by, I do have a lot of respect for how great I thought the editing of the film by Alexander Berner was. A complex plot structure like this, with six different stories, six different time periods, and an assortment of different characters could have easily been a huge mess, but I did not find that to be the case at all. I was right along with the film, as it presented a collection of visuals, themes, and ideas. I would not say that I was completely in tuned to everything that was laid out in this film, but the fact that I am considering multiple viewings as a positive makes me believe Cloud Atlas to have been a worthwhile experience.
Isaac Sachs: Yesterday my life was headed in one direction. Today it is headed in another.
I guess it may be necessary to define what I consider to be narrative cohesiveness in the case of Cloud Atlas. While I do take issue with certain things that happen in some of the stories and some of the characters involved, let alone have sections I preferred over others, I did not have trouble following along with the flow of the film, regardless of how it intertwined each story. There was no real pattern to it, aside from ending one scene with a convenient transition to another, based on the imagery or what we are hearing, via the narration. I am placing emphasis on all of this because I think being able to get through the story is the most important aspect of the film. Were it not for the way structure plays its part in this film, I feel like many would walk away asking themselves what they just watched, based on how much this film is throwing at you and the fact that you have something like six flavors of Tom Hanks to deal with, most of which feel like the weirdest Tom Hanks you have ever seen.
Getting to the actors in this film, along with the ones previously noted, the film also features Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Susan Surandon all playing a variety of different roles. It would, again, be too much to explain who these people play, let alone delve into each of them appropriately, without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say that despite the issue I found with dressing up and using makeup effects to make these people look completely different, depending on the time period (particularly in the Neo Seoul section), there are a lot of very good performances here. Given that they are top-billed, I will say that Hanks and Berry are quite good in the majority of their roles. Hugh Grant also impressively plays against type, as he is essentially in villain mode in all of his roles. The best work probably comes from Doona Bae, which probably also has to do with her section (what I would refer to as the start of the Clone Wars), being among the best (despite makeup issues).
Based on what I know about the book, I think the structure of the film is a little different, but still effective in what it is after. Each director handled different sections of the film, with their styles being apparent in each. They all have managed to insert great moments in each segment, though I did have the least reaction to the 1849 section of the film and found the present day section to be a little off-putting, as it relied on a lot of comedy, while the rest of the film was striking a different kind of tone. Still, while a sextet is important in representing the point of this film, some of the segments were easily strong enough to be their own self-contained narrative.
Javier: What are you reading?
Luisa Rey: Old letters.
Javier: Why do you keep reading them?
Luisa Rey: I don’t know. Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.
Now, were one not to have seen this film yet, there is still a reasonable understanding to not quite be sure what one is getting into. While Cloud Atlas is not necessarily a difficult film to comprehend, it is a weird one to try to sell to people unfamiliar. This leads me to what I understood and appreciated about the film and what I also found fault with. On the positive side, Cloud Atlas manages to be clear on a number of themes it is going after in each section. Namely, slavery and injustice are bad things that need to be abolished (no kidding) and to do so, people need to rise up and attack the system, which has become morally corrupt. Some segments handle this better than others, but the through line becomes quite clear, and when the movie is truly working, it really delivers on being an affecting piece of cinema. Where I found issue was with a number of the characters and how they are interconnected, based on the same actor representing different people. Without delving into spoilers, I will simply say that if some of these characters were supposed to be connected, which is what I think the film was going for in some instances, it did not make too much sense to me as to why.
With all of this said, I have hardly touched upon the impressive nature of this film on a technical level. Looking past the makeup, which does have a lot of merits, when I wasn’t being distracted by some of the characters, there is plenty to admire. There are six worlds created in this film, which all look great and are unique to themselves. The visual effects used to create dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds work well here, complete with some disturbing imagery to evoke a number of other similar films. I also think Tykwer’s European filmmaking sensibilities have afforded him the chance to portray certain scenes differently than how one generally sees, for example, a film set in 1973 from an American filmmaker perspective. The cinematography by Frank Griebe and John Toll does wonders in making this a great looking film and the score, composed by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer works well to amplify the effect of the film accordingly.
The benefit of a film like Cloud Atlas is that I think it is the kind of film that will provoke a lot of discussion, regardless of whether people like it or not. There is so much going on in it and it has so much to offer, that it succeeds on being at least a debatable watercooler topic. In writing about the film and thinking about it more, I would be happy to see it again at this point, as I would maybe be able to focus less on certain awkward aspects and more on how these characters are all interconnected. Based on what I have already written though, I do think I have made it clear that I really did embrace Cloud Atlas as an ambitious, unique, and compelling film to watch. It is not flawless, but regardless of how big the scale, there were a lot of people involved in a film that feels like a very personal project to have been a part of.
Louisa Ray: Is this the Cloud Atlas Sextet?
Record Store Owner: I doubt there’s a handful of copies in all of North America.
Louisa Ray: But I know it. I know I know it.