Oftentimes, film buffs complain that nothing truly daring or original is ever put out by Hollywood anymore. These complaints are often unfounded, and can fairly be attributed as grumbling by a very niche group of moviegoers. That doesn’t mean that those movies that are different, the rare ones, can’t be a breath of fresh air for everyone.
These movies come out so infrequently that a lot of the time they can fly under everyone’s radar; these are the movies that become cult classics. Now, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding Cloud Atlas—that it represents a return to form for the Wachowski siblings, and that it is unlike anything Hollywood has put out in recent memory. However, the film has been divisive amongst critics, evenly splitting them into two groups: those convinced of Cloud Atlas’s absolute brilliance, and those left shaking their heads at what they consider a film-making travesty. So where exactly does it stand?
Cloud Atlas is a film that tells six stories, spanning across time from the 19th century to the very distant future. Each of these time periods has its own story to tell, and the film brings them all together into a whole. Honestly, not much else can be said as far as a synopsis goes. This truly is a movie whose intricately structured plot needs to be seen to be properly understood. The fact that I am even saying that, and that I can’t even bring myself to try and describe the basic plot, is a testament to the film’s ingenuity. Therefore, I will just quote the official summary from Warner Bros.:
“Cloud Atlas explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, the present, and the future. Action, mystery, and romance weave dramatically through the story as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution in the distant future. Each member of the ensemble appears in multiple roles as the stories move through time.”
As you can see at the end of that brief description, the members of the film’s substantial cast appeared in multiple roles depending on which time/narrative was on screen. Therefore, it’s a little difficult to actually break down each actor; not only were there so many getting star billing, each one had a swath of performances in the movie. Overall, though, this movie had superior acting. The fact that the actors were able to provide multiple, distinct performances (sometimes behind heavy makeup, making them unrecognizable) is a testament to the impressive abilities of the ensemble. Two of the actors were particularly good, I thought. The first was Ben Whishaw, whom I’ve never seen before in a movie. I enjoyed the performance in his primary narrative, that of a composer who tells his story via letters to his lover. Also of note was Jim Broadbent, who many will remember as Professor Slughorn from the Harry Potter films. I found his turn as Timothy Cavendish very amusing; in fact, the whole 2012 storyline was a lot of fun, thanks to Broadbent’s performance. Besides these two, Jim Sturgess, Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, etc. all did commendable jobs in each of their performances and helped lend a lot of credibility to a film that could have failed on its performances alone.
I haven’t read the book that Cloud Atlas is based on, so I can’t be a judge of how good an adaptation this film was. However, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer have done some truly innovative things with the script here. To be able to juggle six narratives in a non-linear fashion … you can’t help but admire the writing that went behind a gargantuan task like that. However, not all of the narratives were very strong; I’d say three or four of them were very good, whereas the other two were less compelling. Namely, I liked the 1930s, 1970s, present day, and Neo Seoul-future storylines. The 19th century and far future storylines were a bit less compelling to me, though. Despite this, I was never bored watching any of the narratives pan out. In fact, considering Cloud Atlas’s nearly three-hour running time, I find it extremely impressive that the filmmakers were able to keep me interested in all of the stories. This is because Cloud Atlas is the kind of movie that you have to actively watch; this is not a film that you can rent and grab your laptop and multitask with. If you miss part of the film, you will lose track of the entire thing. Herein lies the film’s Achilles Heel, in my opinion: the fact that if you aren’t involved the entire way through then the whole film will unravel. Depending on what kind of viewer you are, this could make or break the movie for you. Still, though, the scope and ambition of the writing is laudable.
Each screenwriter was also doing double duty as a director; that’s right, Cloud Atlas had three directors: the siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski as well as Tykwer. Each director handled two of the narratives. What is so fascinating about this splitting-up of duties is the fact that the film never felt disjointed. In fact, despite the differing story threads in completely different times and locales, Cloud Atlas managed to retain a sense of cohesiveness throughout. If the film’s premise was to show us the karmic nature of the universe across differing times and lives, then I’d say the Wachowskis and Tykwer nailed it just on structure alone. By the end of the film, I could definitely tell that each narrative was distinctly joined to the others. This is partially thanks to the filmmakers’ hints dropped across each of the storylines, from the obvious to the obscure. And there were many obscure hints, enough to warrant multiple viewings of this film at least. Stylistically, the directors each brought their own flare to their time period (the Neo Seoul storyline, in particular, had a decidedly Matrix feel to it.) They had things in common, however, namely strong visuals. I saw Cloud Atlas in IMAX and it was definitely a visual treat, not surprising given the Wachowskis’ track record. Music was also used to great effect; the Cloud Atlas Sextet was played in several of the storylines as one of the major narrative connectors.
Cloud Atlas is easily unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I wasn’t even sure how much I wanted to watch it when I first heard about it. When I left the theater, I couldn’t even decide how much I liked it; all I knew was that I had definitely seen something special. The film ends with a big emotional payoff that resonated strongly with me, and the more I thought about the movie, the more I realized how much I enjoyed it. However, that isn’t to say that I don’t understand why it was such a polarizing film amongst critics. This is definitely not the kind of movie for everyone; it is just too weird for that, and there were definitely some problems with some of the narratives and the fact that you had to keep track of what was going on pretty closely. Still, if you’re looking for something that requires a bit of intelligence—something unique and audacious—then I can’t implore you enough to give this movie a shot.