Cloud Atlas is a fantastic piece of audacious and exhilarating filmmaking that is unlike just about anything you have ever seen in a movie theater.
(Alan has a differing opinion here.)
A story spanning over six hundred years and using actors in multiple roles across six timelines is a daunting task for any filmmaker to undertake and directors Tom Tykwer and Lana & Andy Wachowski are completely up to it. A young businessman sailing home, a composer creating the greatest symphony ever written, a journalist trying to break a story, a publisher trying to escape an undesired destination, a fabricant given a chance to be set free and a tribesman that must overcome his own demons serve as our lead characters across the film as each story is almost equally gripping as the next.
The film, wisely, lays out all of the timelines and characters for you in a traditional fashion; going through each successive story in chronological order. We get to know the characters, the basic premise and a visual taste of each of the stories in longer segments until our most future base lead, Zachary, has a flash of all that has become before him. From here the film begins to cut in between each and every story at will, sending us through each respective narrative while creating a consistent through line across all of them at the same time. The film examines just about every element of the human condition and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the strengths and misery it can cause.
One thing that caught me off guard, but is by no means a negative, was how unconnected things were. There are nods and references between timelines, and one particularly binding birthmark, but each of the story’s stay fairly independent of one another as there isn’t some secret that will magically connect all of the stories into one. Again, not a negative, just something I was anticipating that wasn’t there and the film is no worse for it.
The work by the directors is truly remarkable and the editing/writing of the film is something to behold. The stories blend together effortlessly and the film’s pacing never feels slow or drawn out, making that near three hour runtime go by in a breeze. Each taking on three segments, the directors were able to create a film that feels like it comes from a single voice and it’s indistinguishable to tell who directed which segments; a tremendous feat. The film is often gorgeous and the effects and make-up work help bring this world and the actors multiple roles to life. The film’s score is also one of the strongest of the year with the Cloud Atlas Sextet almost living up to the lofty placement it has in the film. (Tykwer helped compose the score as well.) A technical triumph that is easily able to match the epic scope of the film.
The actors in play are also pretty great from nearly top to bottom. Each story has their own unique lead with most everyone playing some role (small to big) in every other timeline as well. Jim Broadbent might have been my favorite turn in the film as he carries the film’s humor that is found in his daring escape from an old folks’ home. Ben Whishaw is also quite good as a composer with a lot to lose that shares his ordeals with his estranged lover through letters. Tom Hanks gets to have the most fun of any of the actors with meaty roles in four of the timelines, but his Zachary is a tortured soul we can really feel for. Halle Berry is also prominently featured in two of the plotlines and she does as fine a job that we have seen from her in sometime. She doesn’t get to have as much fun as most of the others, but she is a solid anchor for both of her main plotlines. Jim Sturgess is a revelation here as, frankly, he has never been better. He gets to really stretch his wings in a multitude of roles and he makes the absolute most out of his roles both big and small. Doona Bae is also quite the find as Sonmi-451 as she has to show strength and vulnerability and Bae never has any trouble showing off the range. Hugo Weaving is sinister in almost every role he fills, but my favorite might be one that he plays for laughs as the head nurse at Broadbent’s retirement home. Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Keith David and Susan Sarandon are also quite good in a varying array of supporting roles and it is a blessing that the film’s format allows such a large cast of characters to all be played by top notch actors.
Cloud Atlas might be the most ambitious film in some time and that alone is reason enough to praise it. Lucky for us it is filled with fantastic visuals, great acting and a wide variety of characters & stories for one to get wrapped up in. The film has a lot to say and you might need an extra viewing or two to really take it all in, but you don’t get a film like this that often and if you’re anything like me you won’t be able to wait to see it again. Tom Tykwer and Wachowski Starship have delivered us quite an adventure.
Cloud Atlas is an A-