Cloud Atlas Review

Every once in a while, you come across a film that gives you hope that maybe, just maybe, cinema still has a few surges of innovation, passion and vision left. You see a bright light which shines through the constant barrage of garbage. Now I’ve been lucky enough to have found a healthy handful of such films in the past couple years, but Cloud Atlas embodies a whole new sense of the word “cinema.”

Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, the plot of Cloud Atlas really isn’t a plot at all. Rather, it is a interwoven series of six nonlinear vignettes that – when looked at as a whole – act as an unbiased statement, a circumference around the whole existence of being human. We have a massive group of characters, from a life-like Korean automaton to a dedicated tribesman who runs from the devil, to a frazzled publisher trying to escape from a nursing home. From a 19th century sea expedition to a dystopian Korea to a post-apocalyptic regressive future, we’re treated with stories that would have been damned good movies on their own. The film covers all types of human emotions and actions. Hope. Death. Love. Hate. Prejudice. Faith. Trust. Fear. Sorrow. Righteousness. Greed. The list goes on and on as the vignettes play like sprawling chapters from an epic novel.

Cloud Atlas Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks in his cruelly short stint as a homicidal writer.

At 8 minutes shy of being 3 hours long, Cloud Atlas is a film that, on paper, shouldn’t work. Too many characters, too many places, too many jarring transitions, too long, too many big ideas… too much ambition. It worked for the novel, but for today’s film audience, this is the type of story Hollywood typically shies away from. Hollywood’s party line is to downplay the viewer’s intelligence rather than challenge it. Even ignoring that, it seemed an insurmountable task to juggle these characters and stories in a feasible and coherent fashion that keeps the novel’s emotional weight intact.

Cloud Atlas finds itself directed by three brilliant directors in Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and Tom Tykwer (“The International”) – perhaps the only revolutionaries capable of telling this story – and led by an all-star cast. These people make sure that there isn’t a single boring moment. In fact, not once during its 3-hour run-time did I feel bored. Each piece of the puzzle is so perfectly placed that we always want to see more. Be it through luck or a transcendent vision of wills, Cloud Atlas is easily both one of the best films of the year and one of my favorite films in years.

Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas
The hilarious Jim Broadbent being quietly watched by Hugo Weaving’s sadistic nurse.

In the film’s opening narration, several characters ask us for our patience in trying to follow along and promises it will all come together by the end. A lofty promise and quite the challenge, one that fully hinges on the Wachowskis’ ability to trust the intelligence of the viewer without assuming too much should be left unsaid. To their total credit, the dots do connect. There are quite a few moments where our mental light bulbs brighten and that special form of understanding dawns.

Ultimately, we constantly wonder what it all means, but out of wonder, not frustration. We’re invited to cater and adapt to its style rather than having it force it down our throats and expecting us to enjoy the experience. This isn’t a pseudo-intellectual film. It has something to say. In fact, the film has so many big ideas it wants to convey that it’s absolutely shocking it doesn’t collapse under its own weight.

Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving in Cloud Atlas
A battle of wits and bullets between Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving.

What I truly respect the hell out of is just how flawlessly rendered the film’s layers are. Regardless of your mental approach to the film, you’ll get something out of it. But while you have the easy layers that still enrapture, you can go even deeper. Just how deep is up to you. If you follow the opening’s advice and try to put some effort into entering this world, you’re rewarded with a truly emotional payoff by the end.

I won’t pretend to say I understood how some of the stories connect to the bigger picture, but the creators make it so we don’t care. Each story has conflict, drama and something different to add to its genre. That’s something that most impressed me – each of the stories is a rousing testament to each particular genre. From science fiction to romance to thriller to mystery to drama to coming-of-age, we get it all. Each is perfectly crafted so we never lose track of where we are, even as we hop from one story to the next.

Jim Broadbent in Cloud Atlas
Someone really doesn’t like Jim Broadbent very much.

The film offers a smorgasbord acting talent in Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, James D’Arcy and Jim Sturgess. While Tom Hanks takes center stage with some of the juiciest of the roles (particularly an all-too-short stint as a homicidal writer), everyone else has a lot of room to showcase their talents. Each actor has a minimum of three roles, which can change gender and race at will. We are always given impressive (and oftentimes unrecognizable) performances. Some are more funny (Hugo Weaving’s falsetto nurse), while others are heartfelt at their core (James D’Arcy’s discouraged musician). The point is, each chapter knows its place and its intended tone.

We also have a true magnum opus of musical use. That would be the Cloud Atlas Sextet, which ties into the plot due to how one character – who is a musician – is working on a masterpiece that tells of life lived, loved, and lost. Throughout the film, the score is as memorable and praiseworthy as the movie itself. The climax uses this to stunning effect.

Tom Hanks in Cloud Atlas
One of the “bigger” shots

Cloud Atlas is a vastly enjoyable, innovative, and gorgeous film if you only have the patience to let it work its magic. It could have so easily come across as the incoherent ramblings of self-indulgent artists. Instead, we get a complex masterpiece that  respects us as an audience and delights in giving us pieces to put together during the journey.

I feel this surpasses The Matrix as the Wachowskis’ best work. It’s always something special when we come across a brilliant tapestry we desperately want to unravel. The Wachowskis effectively turned one of the literature’s unfilmable novels into a sweeping film that not only does the book justice, but delivers one of the most deliciously enigmatic films ever made. Here’s a film that truly does deserves our time, our attention, and our patience.

In Theaters: October 26, 2012
Runtime: 164 min
Rating: R (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)
Director: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, with Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant
Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Official Site: