Film Review – Cloud Atlas
Epic in both subject matter and length, Cloud Atlas is a film juggling multiple stories at different points in time. Co-directors Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings have crafted a multi-faceted science fiction epic. Featuring a cast of well-known actors playing multiple roles in six different time periods, layered under often clever make-up effects, the film is both big and intimate. For the most part it works. It might not be quite as emotionally moving as it aspires to be, but decoding the various story threads gives the audience the pleasure of filling in some of edges of the plots.
To over-explain all of the stories would do Cloud Atlas a bit of a disservice. In one of the best stories, Ben Whishaw plays an early-1900s-era homosexual hiding from public scorn and composing the titular musical work while studying at the feet of Jim Broadbent as a master composer. In another, Broadbent plays a contemporary literary agent attempting to escape a retirement home where he is captive. There’s a plot concerning a lawyer and an escaped slave set in the 1800s. Halle Berry is a reporter in 1973 working her way through a paranoia-laced story involving a possible China-Syndrome-type nuclear cover-up. Set the farthest in the future is a dystopian tale with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry dealing with what society has left behind after some kind of disaster has wiped out civilization. Probably the most moving story is set a century or so in the future and involves a genetically engineered servant escaping her lot in life with the assistance of an underground rebellion. But these brief descriptions really don’t do all of these stories justice.
Though there have been mixed reactions to this film. What works best is the shorthand that the film is able to use throughout. For instance, when showing a future where “fabricants” are manufactured as servants to service consumers they regard as holy, it’s fun for the audience to fill in the gaps in that story. You can quickly extrapolate how our society would reach a place like that. All of the story threads seem to work in this way, where we jump right into the worlds of these characters without much explanation. We don’t always need it.
The gimmick of actors in multiple roles is fun. Hugo Weaving as a shamanistic kind of boogeyman in the future while also playing a female Nurse-Ratched-type character in the present as well as various other bad guys throughout is wonderful to watch. Hugh Grant appearing as a ’70s era businessman, a devilish senior citizen in the present, and a loin-clothed bloodthirsty cannibal in the future is particularly effective. The whole game of spot-the-actor that runs throughout is a clever hook. But it also reinforces the themes of interconnectedness that ties all of these tales together.
There are some nitpicks. The pigeon-English slang that Hanks and Berry use in the farthest future story is sure to be eventually mocked by comedians the way that everyone can deride Jodie Foster’s made-up language in Nell (“Chicka-bay”) or Navi-speak in Avatar (“Sooolley”). A chase scene in the ’70s-era story goes on a little too long. And while everyone will probably debate this movie endlessly, and while it does have some interestingly poignant statements to make about humanity, in the end the film may not be quite as deep as it wishes it is. Yes, love, freedom, and bravery are universally great. But I think we kind of already knew that.
But the actors are having a fabulously watchable good time. Despite all the big-name talent on display, the heart of Cloud Atlas belongs to Doona Bae as the fabricant newly realizing she has a larger role to play in the world. She makes a real impression. Also, Broadbent in the senior citizen home is the most comically charming of the bunch. In fact, as high a concept and as big a production as this is, the whole affair has a large bit of theatricality to it. Since the stories are all cut up and presented out of order, you are left with a lot of individual two-person scenes that are quite compelling.
Cloud Atlas is ambitious. It’s fun, thoughtful, and very watchable. While it has an almost three-hour running time, you have seen 90 minute movies that feel longer. It may not achieve every goal it has, but the creators of The Matrix and Run, Lola, Run have made a film of ideas and hope.
Final Grade: A-