Directors: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Run Time: 172 min
Genre: Drama, SciFi/Fantasy
Opens October 26th
Reviewed by Eric Forthunn from Cinematic Shadows
Cloud Atlas is one of those definitive masterpieces that so rarely come along in cinema. It's a movie of visual grandeur, deeply felt emotional resonance, intensely detailed characterizations, and a sense of wonderment that we often take for granted. Movies don't sweep us up quite like this anymore, and with good reason: the movie's daringly ambitious, sometimes impenetrably so, but that makes it an invigorating watch. The themes that are drawn between these interwoven stories, all taking place over the span of 600 years (and six different times), work rather perfectly once the movie closes on a borderline exhausting 165-minute running time. Yet if there's any film that warrants such a laborious screen presence, it's one that identifies themes of love, connection, self-identification, and more all through different characters sometimes represented by the same actor. It's an odd strategy, but it grounds the movie massively in a world that should defy understanding; the links formed by these actors, though, and their different time frames and personas, are all embodied by the idea that they arguably love the same people through these times. They're accepting of death, of what it may entail, if only because they have come to terms with what life embodies: the persistence of love, sometimes frustratingly so, is the driving force of the film. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have made one of the most memorable films in years, and its ambition is something even naysayers can't deny.
The movie's plot is indistinguishable in terms of a single linear narrative, and attempting to explain it will only confuse the reader/viewer further, so I won't bother going into specifics. A link is crafted between these characters and the various worlds they all inhabit; they all exist in the same timeline, of course, but they act as rebirths of themselves as time goes along. Characters cross race and gender borders that are truly unprecedented in terms of where modern film is. Jim Sturgess predominantly plays an 1800s sick seaman, yet also has an equal amount of screen time as an Asian man in 2144 New Seoul, trying to save a young woman who has been genetically modified to work a life of painful repetition. Said girl, played by Donna Bae, also plays a white woman in the 1800s under a white family, headed by Hugo Weaving, who plays an Asian man in 2144 and a woman in 2012. Halle Berry plays primarily in 1972 an investigative journalist looking into the possible corruption of a nuclear reactor plant, and she also plays a white woman in the 1930s, and a brief moment as a man at a point I won't specify. Jim Broadbent is mainly seen as a 1930s arrogant composer, and a 2012 struggling publisher, yet he also plays a Korean musician for a brief moment. The point is, all of these characters and actors are crossing paths that they never would've dreamed of in other films.
The movie's daringly ambitious, and that will certainly be off-putting and inaccessible for some. The build of the film requires absolute attention for its running time, for the explorations of themes occasionally happen briefly and are touched upon later in the film rather subtly. For instance, characters deliver voiceovers that often give us insight into the world and its themes: the connection of our lives, the intersection of each other in current times and previous/future ones, the dominance of love in all of these worlds and the odd way it links souls after they are reborn; all of these are brought up at various points as if they are all of equal importance. Those themes are so thoroughly examined through these characters' actions, though, and so masterfully portrayed by these actors that we buy into every bit of the movie's dominating presence. Pretension is out of the question when it comes to films that want to connect this deeply to human emotion, rooting it in tales that are interwoven by all themes and all times. I often hate it when filmmakers find their films exceedingly more important than they are, making trivial films and trying to bog them down with weighty messages. Yet Cloud Atlas is fundamentally different from those films because it's understanding of the universality of its themes and characters; relating to the film is beyond possible, it's unavoidable.
The movie's emphasis on genre filmmaking is also remarkable because the Wachowskis and Tykwer understand the roots of these filmmaking styles. Within the futuristic worlds, of course there are heavily focused features of science fiction, yet at the same time there are prevalent romances in the 2144 and 2400 tales; there's also a fantastical element in 2400 involving Hugo Weaving's character that belittles Tom Hanks'. The 2012 storyline following Jim Broadbent's character being put away in an old folks' home has plenty of slapstick, but later on the elements of a heist film and buddy comedy come into the picture. The 1800s tale on the ship emphasizes the character drama and human emotion coming from these two characters of different races working together, but at the same time there's a tale of corruption and betrayal with Hanks and Broadbent. In 1972, it's clearly mirroring a police procedural, often addressing the clichés of the genre head on through dialogue (including a, "This is where the character typically says that and then dies"), but it ultimately becomes a tale of lost love and finding one's integrity in a sea of corruption. The themes of the film, or the ultimate one of love, are emphasized pervasively through these different worlds, yet that doesn't make it overdone or out-of-control; the more nuanced attempts make for some of the finest scenes of the year, particularly between Hanks and Berry late in the film.
The technical components of the film are near flawless, whether that be the film's editing, visual effects, sound effects, make-up, costume design, production design, art direction, you name it. The editing is the most masterful in my opinion, capturing so much of the film's momentum and moving along at a brisk, effortless pace that makes the entire film feel hurried without necessarily being rushed. Scenes don't last too long, but more importantly, the shorter scenes are put together in a way that brings forth their importance: a scene where Ben Winshaw and James D'Arcy are throwing around plates and bowls, talking about the limitless elements of time and space, is one of the most beautifully mesmerizing scenes I've ever seen, yet it's only a thirty-second glimpse into a theme that is often addressed indirectly for most of the movie's running time. The editing makes that scene come at a time when it could've drawn on for four or five minutes, and I wouldn't have necessarily complained, because it's a gorgeous scene. Yet Berner might have done the best editing job of the year, putting together an insurmountable amount of material into something ultimately coherent. Go figure. The make-up jobs, and costume design, not only provide context for these characters and what time they exist in, but also work in ways that make us not question the races they are bending. I didn't mind that Berry and Bae played white characters, because it adds to the themes of the film; nor did I care that Weaving and Sturgess play Asian characters, because it simply works.
Everything is connected, the movie often claims. Individually, I don't believe the stories are astounding, or anything revelatory necessarily, but that's not the point of vignette films like this. Cloud Atlas explores these characters through their time periods and directly relates them back to older/newer stories, bringing the story together without there being that big, definitive moment that defines the film. Every instance in the movie is important, as the tagline infers, because these are all moments that connect to one another. Helping a lost soul at one point in time reflects upon what you have done, what you will do, and what you could have done. Hanks has a brilliant moment where he doesn't go out to save his friend, instead hiding behind a rock, seeing himself as a coward. Later in the film, in a role reversal, he's about to be killed, and he's looking for someone to save him just like his friend was. What happens after that defines so much about these characters and the movie's intentions, and even if those themes are remarkably subtle, there are more obvious odes to love and connection. I don't mean that as a bad thing, not in the slightest, just a simple observation about an endlessly complex film.
Some might dismiss Cloud Atlas as messy, and while I understand the claim, they might not be looking into it enough to see the bigger picture. It's arguably "messy" for a reason, balancing genres, characters, even worlds that defy easy interpretation. The movie demands analysis, asking the audience to engage with this material in all of its glory. "I know art when I see it" is one of the most defining quotes to grace critics and their judgment of an art form; I certainly know when I've seen a work of art, and directly after viewing I knew what I had just seen would last in my mind. It's a brilliant, bold piece of filmmaking, an attempt at encapsulating human emotion in varying stories that no modern filmmaker has conceived in who knows how long. The closest example is Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent Magnolia, if only because that's a vignette that focuses on the connectivity of us all. Yet this one brings forth its more fantastical elements, the dystopias that some of these worlds are, and makes them into a commentary on society and our connections. We're all connected in one way or another to a single other person: by love, and if you believe in reincarnation as the movie insists, then you will find that same love at another point in time. I don't remember the last time I saw a film that struck me as much as Cloud Atlas, but I know this: you need to see this film, because if you don't, well, you might be missing out on the best film of the year.