Everything about “Cloud Atlas”—the latest film from “The Matrix” helmers the Wachowskis and “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer—is big. The film has a big cast—both in name and number—big ideas, big scope, big run time (172 minutes), and, for the most part, big payoff. And the biggest thing of all is the film’s ambition. Boy howdy do the filmmakers set out to accomplish a great many things in adapting David Mitchell’s best-selling novel. And the film features multiple references to “Soylent Green”, which is one surefire way to gain my favor.
“Cloud Atlas” could easily have turned out a jumbled mish mash of ideas, time periods, actors, and themes. Half a dozen stories unfold in an equal number of historical epochs, running the gamut from the distant past to a remote, post-atomic future. Though these tales share no immediate ties, they are linked thematically. Images, emotions, and even haunting musical packages echo throughout time. Actions, both cruel and kind, carry consequences across generations. Everything is connected, that’s the idea at the core of “Cloud Atlas”.
This isn’t a causal connection, and there isn’t a definitive, discernable line to follow from one event to another. On the surface these stories aren’t linked in any concrete way. Initially the film bounces back and forth between storylines that are mostly tied together by Tom Hanks wearing a variety of wacky face scars. It is through the trio of director’s masterful handling of the narrative that the bond and associations become clear. A mass of disparate ideas, settings, and times weave together into a stunning tapestry that keeps reaching and reaching.
Structure and editing wise, “Cloud Atlas” is almost flawless. As you transition from place to place, time to time, character to character, Tykwer and the Wachowskis use tonal cues, recurring images, and thematic elements to justify each cut and link otherwise disparate scenes. This helps to create an internal flow and logic within the picture. How else could you make the jump from the deck of a ship sailing across the South Pacific in the 19th century, to the “Blade Runner” looking cityscape of a futuristic Neo-Seoul, to Hugh Grant decked out like post-apocalyptic tribesman, and make all of these shift seamless and reasonable?
Within this colossal undertaking of a plot, some of the most lauded and critically acclaimed actors of our age populate the screen. Here’s a sample set: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, and many, many more. As wide-ranging as the plot is, the parts and performances are equally as diverse. All of the primary actors play multiple roles across the various timelines, most as many as six. Each makes adjustments and slips into new personalities as the script dictates, often crossing gender and racial lines. (“Cloud Atlas” has already caught flack for using “yellow face,” and questionable eye prosthetics to make Caucasian actors appear Asian. This contrast is never so apparent as when you see a made up Hugo Weaving or Jim Sturgess in the same frame as Doona Bae. But that’s a discussion for another time.)
Among this absurd list of big-time talent, there is one true standout. Jim Broadbent is absolutely fantastic. His roles include an early 20th century composer in the twilight of his career, as well as a present-day publisher who finds himself owing money to the wrong sort of people, only to somehow land in an even stickier situation. Though his characters find themselves in dire circumstances, they provide something that “Cloud Atlas” doesn’t have a great deal of overall: occasional moments of humor. In a movie this serious and grave, a quick spot of levity from time to time can keep you from being crushed underneath the thematic weight.
There is definitely more in “Cloud Atlas” that works in its favor than works against it, but there are still issues holding it back. Over the course of three hours, there are a few points where the pace flags (that’s bound to happen, but overall it never feels too long). And though the film starts strong, setting up the “everything is connected” concept, you never dig much deeper into it than this surface level. In the end, it all feels a bit too easy, too simple, with obvious Christ metaphors, and the “what is an ocean but a multitude of drops” line of thinking. “Clout Atlas” builds towards something, but never quite gets there.
Still, “Cloud Atlas” is a fantastic film that blends science fiction, philosophical rambling, and impressive narrative prowess, with stunning visuals, and engaging stories and characters. All too often a movie with such a specific theoretical aim eschews traditional narrative elements in favor of ideas, but Tykwer and the Wachowskis create a nice balance between story and ambition. Definitely not a film for everyone, “Cloud Atlas” feels like an experiment, and while largely successful, it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up to multiple viewings.