I don’t know if I’m ready to review ‘Cloud Atlas’. Is one viewing enough? I know I’ve witnessed something amazing; that I’ve seen a film of unbounded imagination, and fearless scope. But I’m not entirely sure I know what it’s about. Based on the novel by David Mitchell (which I have not read), ‘Cloud Atlas’ interweaves six interrelated stories over a span of five centuries involving a gigantic cast of A-list stars in multiple roles. Acts of love, cruelty, kindness and more appear to ripple through incarcerated souls as well as time from the past through to the present and well into the future. ‘Cloud Atlas’ is one of the most ambitious movies I’ve ever seen, and is in the tradition of other great films of this scope – ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘The Tree Of Life’.
Usually, at this point in my review, I go into detail about the plot of the film. I’m not sure I will here. Maybe it’s because I can’t. Each segment tells a story of intrigue that touches on some universal themes. Directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer deliberately assign multiple roles to the actors so that we as an audience are able to follow threads to different stories. Easier said than done. During many moments, I asked myself “Is that Hugo Weaving? Is that Jim Sturgess? Did Tom Hanks spend more time with the make-up artist than he did reciting his lines? Wait; is Halle Berry an African-American woman, a Jewish woman, and an Asian man?” One moment, Tom Hanks’ character throws a book critic off a high-rise building, and the next, his other character is a post-apocalyptic villager strangely infatuated with Halle Berry’s extraterrestrial character.
The 24th century storyline has the characters speaking in futuristic gibberish. This is the true-true. I will admit some of this is pretty laughable.
As an exercise in technical filmmaking, this is largely substantial. I will concede that there is enough material in ‘Cloud Atlas’ for six movies – each individual segment is worthy of a full-scale feature all on its own. I greatly admire the choice of the filmmakers to not tell these six stories like vignettes (and have each story appear in chronological order at 27 minutes before moving onto the next one). The filmmakers cut between segments rather rapidly. There’s even a line by one of the characters acknowledging that flashbacks and flash forwards are cheap tricks. To me, each story becomes more involving and more emotional because of the way it is assembled – the energy level and tension of each story builds off of the others. By the end, I felt there was more at stake than there otherwise would have been if the film decided to present these segments as individual short films. These stories are meant to complement each other in the way that a system functions when all its individual components are called into action at the right time. A piece of the system shouldn’t be removed – they exist as a comment on each other, and they are interlinked in such an intricate fashion that the only people who can truly decipher this algorithm are the filmmakers and screenwriters themselves.
But, each of us deserves a crack at it. Yes, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is maddeningly complicated. It is a challenge to keep with these stories involving a 19th century ship, a slave, aboriginals, an aging composer and his new assistant, corruption within a nuclear plant in the 1970s, and a revolution in Seoul in the 22nd century. And the makeup is so well done that often times, we don’t realize we’re seeing the same actors – the fact that some of them go as far as crossing genders only adds to the puzzlement. What does all this come down to? The movie’s themes about the nature of life are evident – we are bound by one another “from womb to tomb” as one character states, and when one door closes another opens. We make choices between gutlessness and bravery, cruelty and humanity, and each of these acts have consequences. On a more basic level, the picture has a “fight the power” message that would make the fathers of transcendentalism proud. I may be entirely off base. But then again, what did viewers derive from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ upon its initial release in 1968?
Good films are in season after all. Will ‘Cloud Atlas’ be a major contender come awards season? I don’t think so. I think it certainly has a good chance of making my personal Top 10 List of the year, but I think it will ultimately prove to be too polarizing to warrant nominations in the major categories. That being said, ‘Cloud Atlas’ will certainly receive recognition for Best Makeup, and Costume Design. The visuals are breathtaking, whether we’re looking at futuristic CGI f/x, or real world cinematography, and so a Best Cinematography nomination is also possible.
Does the film’s reach exceed its grasp? Yes. The filmmakers throw the entire pot of spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks, and I don’t feel like I should fault a film for having too many ideas. All great art represents some kind of failure – you don’t do anything great by doing something within reach. Scene by scene, story by story, I was completely enthralled in the experience. Though it will have as many detractors as promoters, I found ‘Cloud Atlas’ to be a magnificently bold, ambitious, gorgeously filmed epic unlike anything I have ever seen before. “Now, what the heck was that about?” Your papers will be due on Monday. QED.