Review: Cloud Atlas
PLOT: Several characters' fates intertwine throughout five centuries.
REVIEW: CLOUD ATLAS is a true journey of a movie; an ambitious, soaring cinematic experience that will delight, confound, frustrate, thrill and enthrall those who are willing to travel along with it. If movies are supposed to take us out of our own lives and transport us to places new and unfamiliar, CLOUD ATLAS is a one-way ticket to a thoroughly unique experience.
Based on a sprawling novel by David Mitchell (which I have not read but that could change soon), CLOUD ATLAS interweaves six stories through five centuries, connected in ways both overt and subtle. The largest connecting thread is that the main core of actors show up time and time again, playing different characters all inhabited by the same soul. It sounds more supernatural than it actually is, but the idea is that our souls travel infinitely throughout time, inhabiting various bodies but not necessarily bound to the same destinies. Indeed, if you're a louse in a past life, you can be a good man in a future one. (Though sometimes, we're just bastards throughout the ages.)
This transcendent concept is applied to a series of stories that are hardly similar on the surface: A lawyer (Jim Sturgess) in 1849 is sent to make a deal with a plantation owner, but ends up assisting a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) on his boat-ride home while also battling a sickness perpetrated upon him by his slimy physician (Tom Hanks); a crafty 1930s-era musician (Ben Whishaw) endeavors to assist a past-his-prime composer (Jim Broadbent), thinking his own fortunes will improve; in 1973 San Francisco, a dogged reporter (Halle Berry) looks to follow in her journalist father's footsteps by uncovering the schemes of a shifty nuclear power plant president (Hugh Grant) with the help of a sympathetic scientist (Hanks again); in 2012 London, a harried book editor (Broadbent again) is thrust unfairly into an old-age home by a vengeful brother (Grant again); in high-tech 2144 "Neo Seoul" Korea, a genetically-engineered waitress (Doona Bae) learns a terrible truth about her existence via a revolutionary (Sturgess again, sporting Asian-make-up) and questions her subservience to the country's fascist regime; and, finally, in the 24th Century - after "the Fall" (of civilized society as we know it) a humble goat-herder (Hanks yet again) assists an emissary of an evolved race (Berry again) to a dreaded and mysterious mountaintop for an unclear purpose.
Whew, and that's really just the broadest of strokes. CLOUD ATLAS, in its nearly three hour running time, cuts between these chapters as they escalate and parallel each other. It's a tricky formula, one that doesn't always flow seamlessly, yet the film's directors, Andy and Lana Wachowski (The MATRIX Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN, LOLA, RUN), have a knack for keeping things humming along at an exciting pace. Because it's so obvious that the filmmakers have taken great pains to make each and every scene feel important and look flawless (art direction, costume design, cinematography are all top notch), there's never a moment wasted. Every morsel of information - and every palpable emotion - is crucial and worthy of our time. If nothing else, the very appearance of some of these actors in guises they have no business being in (almost every main member of the cast is transformed via elaborate prosthetics at one point or another) is consistently startling enough to grab our attention in a way that is wholly unusual for film today.
CLOUD ATLAS plays with countless themes, most of them not exactly ground-breaking - the nature of identity, the importance of art, the undying power of true love - but its biggest focus is on the unjustly imprisoned and the necessity of personal freedom. The Wachowski siblings have already dealt with this, of course: THE MATRIX trilogy is all about escaping oppression, and so it goes that CLOUD ATLAS finds its greatest pleasure when someone breaks from the ranks and alters the course of not just their own fate but the fate of an entire people. From the lawyer who is inspired to become an abolitionist, to the reporter who risks her life to expose the truth about an evil corporation, to the futuristic slave who finds the will to publicly stand up to a totalitarian regime, the true heroes in the film are the ones who have the courage to make a difference even if certain death awaits.
The film isn't perfect, in fact, far from it. The make-up at times becomes a distraction (you'll find yourself trying to figure out who is who too often), and the dialogue can at times be cheesy - in the case of the Hanks/Berry stuff in the far-off future, rather ridiculous. (It begins to sound like a variant on the peculiar, short-hand way the characters in Anthony Burgess' "Clockwork Orange" spoke, and it soon becomes impossible to decipher.) Depending on the viewer, some of the stories will be utterly fascinating, while the rest will be worthy of fast-forwarding. And the film's "big emotional moments", of which there are many, could ring as hollow and manipulative to anyone but the true romantics in the house.
But I am romantic about cinema, and CLOUD ATLAS stands out as an achievement in both an emotional and technical sense. It seems impossible to deny how genuine the creators feel about the stories they're telling. (People who call this film "pretentious" don't know the meaning of the word, as it may be flawed and ambitious at times beyond its means, but it is sincere to a fault.) There is such heart injected into each and every scene that CLOUD ATLAS begins to feel as if it has a pulse, not to mention boundless energy, vivid ideas and compassion it wants to convey. It galls me to think of how many films lay there on the screen as nothing more than products, and it should be celebrated to think that something this wild and weird actually got in front of cameras in the first place. Finally, here's a movie that costs $100 million and that very idea doesn't appall me because it isn't a soulless enterprise designed to sell a toy or tie-in with a fast food chain.
Besides, how many movies are a comedy, a drama, a historical epic, a crime thriller, a futuristic sci-fi parable - and more - all at once?
The filmmakers passion for the material extends to the cast, which is rather perfectly assembled. Tom Hanks is wonderful in his roles; I especially enjoyed his villainous stints. Playing a thieving doctor in the 1849 segment, a crafty hotel clerk in 1936 and a thuggish author in 2012, Hanks clearly revels his characters' devious behavior and bizarre make-up. Similarly having a good time is Jim Broadbent, who absolutely deserves a Supporting Actor nomination for his fiery, funny turn as the editor who schemes to escape his prison. (Indeed, he further shows his range in his turns as a savage boat captain and also as the aging - but wily - composer.) Halle Berry most resonates as the determined reporter who yearns to do well by her father's memory.
Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving both have the distinction of playing villainous or untrustworthy characters throughout; as I remarked earlier, some souls are just rotten from the get-go and can't be salvaged. (Weaving's interaction with the Hanks character in the 24th Century segment - playing a sort of malignant devil-on-the-shoulder - is one of the stranger characters CLOUD ATLAS has to offer, and that's saying something.) Frankly, there are so many performances in the movie that it would be crazy to list them all off, but each fits right where it's supposed to.
This is a hard review to write, there's no two ways about it. It's an impossible movie to summarize, and the feelings it evokes, at least for this writer, are numerous. It absolutely requires more than one viewing, and perhaps two or three sittings with it wouldn't even be enough to satisfactorily unravel everything CLOUD ATLAS has going on. And that's why it stands out as one of this very few movies that can be categorized as a "must see" this year. Love it (like I did) or hate it (like you might), you won't deny that it deserves to be experienced.