With Cloud Atlas, writing/directing duo The Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy) and their collaborator Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) attempt to convert David Mitchell’s multi-layered, multi-faceted novel into a blockbuster movie experience that feeds both the mind and the soul. To call it ambitious would be an understatement.
The story is in fact six stories, spread across various epochs of time (the mid-19th century, the early 1930s, the mid-1970s, 2012, the future, and a more distant future). In each of these stories, we meet various characters (played by the same ensemble of actors) whose lives, experiences and legacies ripple throughout past and future via artistic connective threads like music, writing or film footage, shaping life, destiny – and even the fate of the world, in some cases. As each story progresses along its arc, a web of cosmic significance slowly but surely comes into view, reminding us that our lives are not just our own, and our connections to others – whether comprehended or not – are far more precious than we may know.
Whether you “get it” or not – agree with its heady spiritual themes or not - Cloud Atlas is a unique blockbuster movie experience that should nonetheless be experienced. In my own view, the movie delivers on more fronts than most other movies manage to deliver on any one front – comedy, romance, drama, horror, spectacle – and is an enthralling ride from start to grand finish, punctuated by some fantastic performances brought to life through the aid of amazing makeup and special effects work.
The script (written by the Wachowskis and Tykwer) drops you right into the thick of things, opening with a grizzled-looking Tom Hanks narrating a tale which quickly breaks into separate vignettes, with the main characters of each tale setting the stage for their respective stories, before things “slow down” into longer sequences set in each epoch. Thereafter, we slip between each different sequence at key transitions – witnessing a moment of triumph in one story, even as we are greeted with a moment of horror or tragedy in another. The screenwriters take what was, by many an accounts, an “unadaptable” novel and manage to deftly convey the entire tale in full depth. And, while some segments are admittedly more interesting than others, there is little that feels extraneous, unnecessary or (worst of all) boring.
The makeup work is astounding, and indeed Cloud Atlas offers the attentive viewer a fun time of picking out all the different versions of the same actor – sometimes as a main player, sometimes just background face – offering much humor and food for thought as to how these “reincarnated figures” are meant to be understood, thematically. Yes, there has been controversy due to the fact that some actors appear as different races and/or genders, and that is an issue which will ultimately be insurmountable for some viewers. All I can say is that there is definite intention behind this stylistic choice, and it is treated with respect and reverence on the part of the filmmakers. Be sure to hang around for the credits: you may be pleasantly surprised by just how many times an actor actually showed up onscreen, and where.
Performances are strong in the film, with nary a weak link to be found in the ensemble. Tom Hanks delivers both scene-chewing and subtly layered performances in his various roles; Halle Berry is pretty much the ethereal spirit she is meant to be, slipping effortlessly from race-to-race, gender-to-gender, like a spiritual chameleon. Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter 6) steals the screen whenever he’s on it, and provides much of the film’s comedic relief; Doona Bae is a breakout performer, whose haunting presence and stare will stick with you long after the film ends.
Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving are frightening and repulsive as the two evil spirits that infect every epoch, while acclaimed UK thespians like James D’Arcy (Master and Commander), Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) and Jim Sturgess (The Way Back) inject humanity and gravity into some of the more pivotal roles in the story. I’m only scratching the surface here: actors like Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi and Susan Sarandon are just a few of the additional players who show up here and there for strong supporting roles.
On the directorial side: The Wachowskis (who direct the 19th century and futuristic segments) are back to form after their questionable Speed Racer adaptation – and their partnering with Tykwer (who helmed the 1930s, ’70s and 2012 segments) is a match made of the same cosmic design the film describes. Cloud Atlas is a massive undertaking, and the directorial team manages to create six separate films that each feel like quality compositions all their own, but still function as a cohesive whole. Again, some segments turned out better than others – but each of them feels unique, vibrant, and perfectly in step with the respective genres they draw from (classic period pieces, contemporary meta comedy, sci-fi fantasy, dystopian drama, etc).
The thinnest segment (in terms of construction) is probably the 1970s storyline, which at times feels like a kitschy riff on the era, rather than an actual representation of that period in filmmaking; however, it nonetheless offers some compelling sequences, and is smartly regulated to limited screen time. The “Neo Seoul” and dystopian “After the Fall” segments are wonderfully realized, and help remind us that the Wachowskis are indeed top-tier visionaries when it comes to thought-provoking sci-fi filmmaking.
Tykwer surprises in a different fashion, bringing genuine humor and heart to those segments that don’t benefit from the aid of grand spectacle. The 21st Century segment (with Jim Broadbent as bumbling publisher Timothy Cavendish) plays like an elderly, comedic version of One Flew the Cuckoo’s Nest, and is an uproariously good time all its own. Quite a feat when that same story is set against, say, a futuristic action spectacle featuring multiple chase scenes and shootouts.
While not everyone will embrace the overarching theme of spirituality and reincarnation that links the threads of Cloud Atlas together, there is still so much rich material within the tapestry to offer something to just about everyone - regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what their personal beliefs and values are. As stated at the start: this is a unique blockbuster experience and is the type of bold choice in filmmaking that (in my opinion) deserves to be applauded – if for no other reason than the ambitious intent to say something greater about life and experience.
Best of all, the journey to that destination touches upon just about every emotion possible – while at the same time challenging both the mind and the eye with big ideas and small (but important) brushstrokes of detail. If there was ever a movie that truly engaged the viewer, this is it. At nearly three hours, it does begin to wear on you as it comes down the final stretch, but the payoff at the end is worthwhile – and, dare I say, even beautiful.
If you want to share your thoughts on the film, check out our Cloud Atlas Spoilers Discussion – or listen to an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors in our Cloud Atlas episode of the SR Underground podcast.
Cloud Atlas is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.