Basically consisting of six genre-jumping films in one, the three-hour Cloud Atlas is real bang for your movie-going buck. This adaptation of David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” fantasy/sci-fi novel is a fascinating experiment in storytelling that offers major rewards for thinking film fans. Unfortunately though, while the movie excels in many areas, particularly the technical, it does come up short in terms of emotion. Only a couple of its tales stir the heart, leaving the viewing experience undeniably impressive but not as affecting as it’s clearly attempting to be.
Cloud Atlas isn’t easy to explain. It’s part historical drama, part illicit gay romance, part industrial espionage expose, part bittersweet British comedy, part Dystopian sci-fi tale and part post-Apocalyptic fable, with the likes of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Jim Sturgess playing multiple parts – which often involves donning heavy make-up, switching genders and undergoing racial transformations. Set from 1849 to 2321, Cloud Atlas is in essence a kind of spiritual “Play it Forward” as each of the tales is linked to its immediate chronological predecessor, and focuses on the repercussions of acts of kindness, performed evidently by the same band of reborn souls.
If this sounds like Cloud Atlas is New Age hippie drivel, it needs to be said that the film doesn’t attempt a deep philosophical exploration of its interlinkages. The interpretation is left up to you. Cloud Atlas is also refreshingly R-rated, refusing to slink away from graphic depictions of violence, nudity and sex.
As already said though, some of the stories are more emotionally engaging than others. As a result, you often wish you weren’t tugged away from these segments and back to the duller tales. For the record, Cloud Atlas is a collaborative writing-directing effort from the Wachowski siblings and German director Tom Tykwer. And although unjust persecution, betrayal and oppressive regimes are nothing new in the Wachowskis’ body of work (they adapted and produced V for Vendetta after all, in addition to making The Matrix), it’s Tykwer’s exploration of these topics that is more memorable.
Tykwer directs the two most involving segments – namely a 1936-set tale of a penniless aspiring composer (Ben Whishaw), and the contemporary story of a publisher (Broadbent) hiding from debt collectors. The latter is by far the most humorous and crowd-pleasing of the segments, and is especially notable for Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of a menacing female nurse on par with Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Although performances are universally strong – and it’s especial fun to play the “Who is under the make-up?” guessing game – each of the stories has their strengths and weaknesses. The segments directed by the Wachowskis are visually striking, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar nominations for Visual Effects and Make-up are in Cloud Atlas’s future. However, these same tales play out far more predictably than Tykwer’s. One of the Wachowskis’ is a future-set segment that starts off well, examining the inhumane treatment of a clone (Bae Doona) whose life consists solely of service at a fast food outlet. The story arc looks stunning, and features the finest choreographed action scenes of the film, but it ultimately degenerates into a bog-standard sci-fi rebellion.
The Wachowskis’ post-Apocalyptic tale with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry is weirder, although the mental challenge with this one is chiefly the fact that you have to decipher the characters’ dialogue, which has degenerated into a kind of clipped folksy dialect after “the Fall” of Civilisation.
Cloud Atlas is really one of those movies that requires multiple viewings to come to terms with its nuances of connection and various imbedded meanings. A few days after an initial screening I’m still trying to determine what it’s trying to say, and so far the strongest message to emerge is its proposition of an alternative to the rigid rule-set of organised religion – namely a positive spirituality that sees life energy in continual transference. Time and time again Cloud Atlas makes the case for the life- and world-changing potential of basic human decency at the level of individual action.
With its twisty interweaving narratives, and the concentration it requires, Cloud Atlas is far from a brainless popcorn flick – and is likely to alienate a good few people with its brash unconventionality. Personally though, I just wish I cared more, for more of the characters. If the film’s interesting, centuries-leaping plot structure has any downside, it’s that it detaches you in this crucial department.
Last Updated: November 6, 2012