To describe what “Cloud Atlas” is does not entail describing it’s many characters played by the same actors across a series of short vignette’s over the course of hundreds of years. To properly convey what the film is and what is sets out to accomplish requires only a simple explanation about it’s deeper meanings hidden beneath the flashy exteriors of its interconnected stories featuring individuals whose personal journey’s span all time and space. This is a film about how the actions and decisions made by those individual souls directly impact and shape not only the course of all mankind but their own destinies over their many incarnations. This is a film about how the human spirit persists against all odds, both good and bad, to change or remain who and what they are despite the immense amount of adversity they encounter.
That description may sound cryptic, a little too highbrow or even completely pretentious or incomprehensible, but none-the-less, those are the goals of which the ambitious new film from the trio of directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski’s attempts to aspire to with the film adaptation of writer David Mitchell’s novel, “Cloud Atlas”. There has never been a film quite like this, it’s stories and their outcomes will feel very familiar, it’s characters will come off as slightly cliche and somewhat one note and it’s meanings will be lost to all but the most astute first time viewer, however it’s scope and the sheer audacity of its undertaking is unlike any film you have ever seen. “Cloud Atlas” is a masterpiece simply for its broad ambitions, but is not without its faults however. Even with its detractors, this is without a doubt the most impressive film of the year.
Spread across multiple generations, the audience is quickly introduced to each time period through brief flashes featuring most of the principle characters they will soon be following on their many adventures. We see an old man looking up at the stars as he tells a story, we see a man in a top hat approach another who is digging up teeth from old corpses along the beach front, we see a man place himself in a bathtub with a Luger pistol pointed directly into his open mouth and we see a woman being interrogated by a peculiar looking man. We don’t know any of these people, we don’t know who they are or what they are doing. The nature of their lives and how they are connected remain a mystery which will be revealed over the course of the next three hours.
There are a total of six short stories taking place that the film jumps around through at what first appears to be random intervals but are later revealed to have an actual purpose in the order of events we see unfold. There is the story of a lawyer on a long voyage home across the sea in 1850, a young man requisitioned to help an old and revered composer make his final masterpiece in 1931, a reporter who is on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy with a local nuclear power plant in 1975, a novelist/publisher who falls on hard times and must escape his elderly prison in 2012, an artificial woman (called a ‘Fabricant’) who is the key to rebellion in the late 22nd century and finally in an undisclosed future we see the last remnants of humanity struggle to find a way to survive.
In order to truly and fully appreciate “Cloud Atlas” for what it is, and in turn enjoy it, you must first understand that those individual stories being told are nearly inconsequential compared to the actual characters and their actions in those stories. You need to approach the film from a completely different perspective than you are probably used to. For instance, in the 1975 segment we follow a reporter as she investigates the alleged corporate espionage taking place at a nuclear power plant. Her discoveries put her life in danger as she finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. The outcome, however relevant to those characters in that particular story, in the grand scheme of things doesn’t really matter, how that particular story ends only matters in the context of what actions each of the characters had made that helped shape what transpired and in turn how those actions effect their next incarnation.
Are you lost yet? Don’t worry, when you sit down to actually watch the movie you will still be lost, at least a little bit. “Cloud Atlas” will have an extremely limited appeal when it comes to general audiences due to its many complexities and unclear objectives. That is mostly due to its unconventional storytelling devices and the numerous time jumps it makes. Things start out slow and easy enough progressing from the 1800’s up through the 22nd century but once it has set all the pieces in place it quickly begins to ramp up in intensity that will have the viewer jumping back and forth between the different time periods in the blink of an eye. Imagine if you will watching six different movies on six different channels and randomly switching between each of them when they are all kicked into high gear and you will have a small grasp on what it is to watch this film.
In any other hands this would be detrimental. The Wachowski’s blend each of the different stories and characters together with an ease that will pass most casual viewers by which means they have done their job and done it extraordinarily well. When they are shifting between a daring escape hundreds of miles above the ground with laser blasters being fired in all directions, then cut to a man on a sail boat slowly being killed by a deadly poison and then to a woman being run off the road and finally back to where it all started all within a matter of minutes, you aren’t thinking about these as individual stories anymore, you are literally in the moment viewing these disparate stories as a whole despite them having no real literal connection to each other. If you are thinking along those lines in the moment, then you have successfully transitioned into the mindset needed to fully immerse yourself into the world of “Cloud Atlas”.
The problem with all of this however is that the film really does very little to convey to the audience what it is they are actually expected to derive from any of this. We know everything looks stunning (except for a handful of odd and painfully bad make-up jobs), we know that we are witnessing an orchestration of something with a grand meaning behind it all and we know this is an important film. But unless you are familiar with the book or have done an intense amount of research before seeing it, the film’s structure and immense ambitions will be lost to most everyone, which is just a shame. It’s not that it really needs to spell everything out, but the subtle hints it drops to how each story is linked, such as the birthmarks, are frustratingly obtuse in their meaning. You know that it is telling you these are re-incarnations for each of these people’s souls but you have no real understanding of why it is important that you know that.
Thankfully the powerful filmmaking and more than capable all-star cast makes the experience worthwhile regardless of your inability to fully grasp it’s greater meanings on your first viewing. Each story taken on their own are easy enough to follow due mainly to their simplicity. Even the future time periods are easily understood with its straightforward approach to its subject. Familiar themes such as oppression, betrayal, love and escape pervade each story making it easy to follow despite never knowing where the film as a whole is going. There will be moments where you think you have a handle on it but moments later the film throws you a curve ball which makes you re-evaluate everything you have seen up to that point. The best examples of this are the crossover moments, the threads that loosely connect and stitch each story together.
These connections are highly deceptive if you have any preconceived notions about how the film will unfold. This is a difficult film to describe let alone market and because of that even with numerous ads and trailers beating audiences over the head with vague descriptions about lives crossing over and people making connections, most viewers are led to believe it is about the wrong thing. When those connections start popping up it is almost impossible not to believe they will lead to a grand reveal at some point. For instance, in the 1930’s segment about the composer and his helper, there is piece of music they work on called the “Cloud Atlas, Sextet” which has an immense amount of importance put upon it. Characters speak about how the notes just came to them, how they dreamt of the melody and when they achieve the final product of all their hard work it is a glorious moment in their lives. Then in the 1970’s another character locates a limited pressing of that exact same piece of music and it seems to mean something to her as well as the man working at the music store, like they have heard it before.
Moments like those happen throughout each story only with different things connecting them, either a diary, a video recording or any other inconsequential object or piece of literature. The problem lies in how the viewer isn’t aware that there is no meaning behind any of those connections. The music is never mentioned again in the further time periods and has the odd effect of making the viewer feel as though they must have missed something when in fact they haven’t. It is difficult to really label any of this as a failure since when it becomes clear what the through-line of the film is, not only are those moments more meaningful but they are also darn right clever. The failure lies in our own expectations which is a combination of every other story, book or movie we have come in contact with in our own lives that lead us down those paths of thought. “Cloud Atlas” is a film that begs to be seen multiple times, it has many hidden treasures that will likely reveal themselves over time, it’s just a shame that it will lose most audiences by being so…different.
Another strange choice that leads to a lot of confusion is how each actor portrays a different character in each time period. What the purpose of that choice was is clear when you understand the bigger picture, but until that moment of revelation it is just comes off as a very deliberate showpiece for each actor. The actors themselves however go for broke with many turning in their best performances in years. Playing six distinct characters each (some given more screen time than others depending on the time period), you have Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Keith David, Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae, among many others in smaller roles. Each one contributes equally to the film with little regard to stardom or recognition and meld into their roles with great ease. If you have any issues with the film upon your first viewing, chances are it won’t have anything to do with the acting.
Where exactly does all that put “Cloud Atlas” when it comes to a recommendation? This is a film that needs to be seen by everyone, there is no denying that. It deals with concepts and themes that are unlike anything any other film has ever attempted and despite lacking a way to introduce the audience to what it is they are supposed to be taking away from the experience, it succeeds at everything it sets out to accomplish. The inter-connecting lives and how you see them change, stay the same or struggle with their inherent nature over the course of all their different lifetimes is truly remarkable and the Wachowski’s (along with Tykwer) deliver the goods with a visually striking, emotionally gripping and often times transcendent film-going experience which is backed by strong performances from all its principle cast members. If you love sprawling epics but can handle being a little lost from time to time then “Cloud Atlas” provides the goods. It is a flawed film, but it’s unique ideas and expertly woven multiple story lines will still leave you in awe, if not a little dumbstruck as well.