Ambitious, daring, confounding, and undeniably epic, Cloud Atlas is a film unlike anything you have ever seen. It is a story that takes on the profound questions of life and love, the notions of past-lives and future-lives, the possibilities of endless connectivity, and the idea of fate. It is such a rich narrative of characters, situations, and ideas that to understand it in one viewing is impossible.
And for some, this might be too trying a challenge. They might get confused. Others might be bored because they simply don’t understand how six stories that range from the 1800’s to the future are connected. And I understand. I get why people would give up early on and check out. But I also understand that even though the final ten minutes are both satisfying and confounding, others will leave the film dazzled by its ideas and actively begin to work out the complicated narrative threads and how they all fit together.
This is filmmaking at its most creative and challenging. Because in the hands of directors/writers Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and Andy and Lana Wachowski ("The Matrix Trilogy"), nothing is more evident than seeing three directors at the top of their craft. These three know exactly what they are doing and have birthed a massive story where every shot, edit, and prop is intricately worked out to reveal their larger theme. It is a stunning achievement and whether you totally understand the film or not, you can’t deny the artistry that graces the screen.
To explain the plot of "Cloud Atlas" is like explaining the course of life. You can’t. You can just mention the players and some key moments, but how that spills one over the other is what is so compelling. The film opens with Zachry (Tom Hanks) old and scarred and sitting by a fire under a starry night sky. He tells a story to an unknown audience in a sort of broken English-hybrid language that is barely understandable. As he speaks we are given images of the five other stories we will be seeing throughout the two hour and 45 minute film.
One is of an 1849 ocean voyage across the Pacific Ocean where a young man named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) becomes gravely ill and is helped by Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks, again) and eventually a slave named Autua (David Gyaisi.) There’s also the early twentieth century story of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) a male prostitute/composer who has fallen in love with Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) but who goes to live with a famous composer (Jim Broadbent) to help him write his next masterpiece. In the early 70’s we meet Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist who is trying to crack the mystery of a nuclear power plant that has people being murdered all around her.
In a future Korea, we meet Somni-451 (Doona Bae) a worker clone that escapes her daily routine with the help of a kindly man named Hae-Joo Chang (also Sturgess). Lastly, a publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent, again) must deal with being put into a nursing home by his crabby older brother played by Hugh Grant. The bookend story involves a post-apocalyptic island where two people band together to survive.
As you can see, the actors in this film play a number of different roles, anywhere from three to seven a piece. And while the makeup can be distracting at times, it’s still a fascinating gimmick that drives the point of the film home: that we are all connected and that our many lives have intersected over and over again. In one, a man is made from murderer to hero, in another the recipient of a genuine kindness pays it forward in another life causing a shift in the beliefs of an entire world.
This is by all turns a grand idea based on the book by David Mitchell. At times, it can be frustrating jumping from story to story, sometimes minute by minute, but this also keeps the film from becoming plodding. The stunning score by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Rienhold Heil is perfectly utilized and runs almost continuously and hypnotically making the entire film a tone poem of our lives. Production design by Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch is downright astounding. The detail in every sequence and time period is so flawless and so special, you could take a class just on that aspect alone. Everything from the editing to the art direction to the cinematography is magnificent. As for the actors, they excel in so many different ways it’s almost impossible to delineate the myriad of characters and performances. I will say that Halle Berry’s two main characters stayed with me the most. Jim Sturgess is wholly memorable as not only the sickly Adam, but the completely transformed Korean savior of Somni-451. Similarly, Doona Bae - a newcomer on our shores - is gloriously heartbreaking as the escaped clone. All give Oscar-worthy performances.
When I left the theatre, I had many questions and I wasn’t as wholly moved as I expected I might be. But not even a day later and I can’t shake the film from my mind. I want to know more about the connections between the lives, I want to understand every line and every poetic truth the characters utter. There are so many it’s almost impossible to digest. While that might be frustrating to some, for me it just made it seem significant. Tykwer and the Wachowski Siblings definitely had something to say through Mitchell’s work and there is no doubt in my mind that every frame and every piece of dialogue meant something to them and was perfectly positioned to get that across. I certainly didn’t catch every meaning or every nuance, but I felt like I was in assured hands and that there was nothing extraneous about what was onscreen.
This film might be difficult for some to digest and I would understand if some audiences didn’t want to make the effort to see the overall meaning of the film. It’s not for everyone. But for those that take the chance, they just might find a masterpiece that gets more and more rewarding on every viewing. And it might make them take a deeper look at their own lives and the behavior that they put forth into the universe.