Cloud Atlas, a joint venture between the Wachowski Starship and Tom Tykwer, is a monumentally ambitious endeavor, challenging not only in the size of its production but also in the scope of its imagination and in the weight of its themes and concepts. Despite its lengthy running time of 164 minutes, most audiences are very unlikely to glean everything that can be gleaned in one viewing; one can conceivably see this film for the tenth time and still manage to find something that had been previously missed. Adapted from David Mitchell’s novel, it isn’t structured so much as it’s woven together with the strands of six plotlines, all set in different eras, all either distantly or directly connected to each other, all featuring the same set of actors. It employs not only various techniques but also various genres, freely shifting from historical drama to tragic romance to dystopian science fiction to post-apocalyptic fantasy to political thriller to absurd comedy.
The fragmented nature of the story, which incorporates elements of karma and reincarnation, necessitates that each actor assumes multiple roles – which, in this case, means not just a transformation into other characters but also into other ages, races, and even genders. This meets with varying degrees of success, sometimes getting rather unseemly and grotesque. One of the six characters played by Tom Hanks, for example, is an English writer who detests critics to the point that he actually murders one by throwing him from the balcony of a rooftop party; the cockney accent Hanks fakes is so embarrassingly unconvincing that one wonders if he was inspired by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Hugo Weaving also plays six characters, one of which is a female nurse in a British nursing home. Her masculine build, coupled with her authoritarianism, makes her an especially awkward comic foil.
Herein lies one of this movie’s biggest issues: Because the story is such that the actors are required to appear in all the different segments, they’re occasionally forced to take on roles they’re clearly not qualified for. In one segment, both Weaving and Jim Sturgess are fitted with eyelid prosthetics that are intended to make them look Asian but really only make them look ridiculous. Halle Berry is a young white woman at one point and an elderly Korean man at another; in both instances, we’re more tempted to stare at the makeup work than to pay attention to what her characters say and do. Another problem is the sheer number of storylines, all of which are so inundated with players and situations that it makes sorting through all the details incredibly difficult. As a result, taking notice of the subtexts and thematic motifs will take nothing less steely determination.
Having said all that, the film is an original effort that never fails to be engaging. Visually, it’s a triumph of art direction, set design, and special effects. Narratively, it’s permeated with intriguing intellectual and philosophical concepts, namely those of interpersonal connections, cause and effect, and the very spirituality of life, death, and rebirth. I honestly don’t believe the intention was to delve into all this in great detail; the filmmakers introduce them and then allow the audience to ponder them long after the movie has ended. That’s why I think there’s something to be said about a film that demands more than one viewing. It doesn’t let us off the hook. We have to process it. This can indeed be maddening, but under the right circumstances, it can also be quite stimulating. Here is a film that provides more topics for discussion and debate than just about any other film out now.
There’s no adequate way to sum up all the plotlines in a few short sentences, but I’ll try nonetheless. In 1849, an ill lawyer on a ship sailing back to America befriends a stowaway and is finally made aware of the reality of slavery. In the 1930s, a penniless English musician finds work transcribing a renowned composer’s latest opus. The details of his stay are recounted in a series of letters written to his gay lover. In the 1970s, a California journalist risks her life to expose a conspiracy regarding a nuclear power plant. In 2012, an aging British literary agent finds himself in debt to a gang of thugs and is ultimately committed by his brother to a nursing home. He and a team of elderly residents soon thereafter plot an escape. In 2144, a Korean rebel frees a cloned bartender from enslavement and helps her rise against her country’s totalitarian regime. At an even more distant time, when societies have all collapsed, a woman from one of the last technologically-advanced civilizations seeks the help of a tribesman living in a primitive society on a cannibal island.
It would take too much time to list all the characters from each segment and the actors portraying them. I will say that the segments collectively feature a large assortment of actors. I’ve already mentioned Hanks, Berry, Weaving, and Sturgess. There’s also Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Ben Wishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Zhou Xun, and David Gyasi. You should see for yourselves how their roles change from one segment to the next and how they connect with one another. While by no means visually or thematically comparable to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas is such a memorable film that I can’t help but feel that it too is destined for almost universal praise. As of right now, critics are sharply divided over it. I myself didn’t fully understand it, nor did I completely appreciate its style. As I say this, I’m reminded that critics were just as conflicted about 2001 back in 1968, and today, it’s widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
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Warner Bros. Pictures