NOTE: This review first appeared on this site on September 8, 2012 after I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits theaters this weekend.
No one will say Cloud Atlas isn't ambitious. In fact, I use some variation of the word at least four times in this very review. The writer/director teaming of Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have adapted David Mitchell's 2004 novel into a sprawling, fractured narrative that spans over 400 years of human existence, beginning in 1849 and moving beyond 2250. The message is clear and even uttered by one of the characters, "Why do we keep making the same mistakes?"
To hammer that point home, each of the six separate stories told throughout are all essentially telling a slightly different variation of the same story, and not only that, a story we've heard throughout the ages. This is to say, for as ambitious as Cloud Atlas is, very few "new" ideas are brought to the table outside of its agile storytelling. At nearly three hours it's a bit overkill and unnecessary, even though it's also energetic, entertaining and provocative.
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For instance, Tom Hanks is a doctor in 1849, an innkeeper in 1936, a scientist in 1973, an author in 2012 and a valleyman in an undetermined and desolate future I can best project to be somewhere around the year 2250. Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving and more all play a variety of roles in these eras. All variations of their characters from one to the next, affected by those that came before them, establishing the film's second theme... the desire or lack thereof for change.
To perpetuate this second theme, the issue of slavery in one form or another, is the connective strand from one era to the next. In 1849 it's slavery as we best know it. Jim Sturgess plays Adam Ewing, a man working for a slave trader whose life is changed after an encounter with a self-freed slave. In 1973 it's a message of mankind's dependence on oil, in 2012 it's the dismissing of the older generation and in 2144 an idea of manufactured slavery in the form of clones. All of these instances maintain a common thread, which is the continued suppression of others as the powerful lord over the meek.
With each story pushing this same agenda it's both tiresome and invigorating as the potential for revolution is close at hand. The only thing that truly bothered me about Cloud Atlas was the themes didn't live up to the narrative ambition. The inter-weaving of these six stories into one is a master class in editing and screenwriting. To conceive of a story that could be told in such a way and then to execute it in a manner that is largely digestible (some moments still remain a bit confusing) is a feat in and of itself and the kudos don't end there. For as thematically driven as the film is, it doesn't forget to add several jolts of Hollywood entertainment with its more artful aspects.
In 2144 a daring escape is utterly thrilling. Over 100 years beyond, cannibals feed on the villagers in a desolate landscape where radiation threatens human existence and devilish manifestations haunt one of the protagonists. Without a doubt, Cloud Atlas is a spectacle and deserves to be seen on the big screen as a result.
The performances are collectively outstanding with certain moments standing out more than the rest.
A series of letters maintaining a relationship between a film composer played by Ben Whishaw in 1936 and his lover (James D'Arcy) back at Cambridge is consistently moving. Doona Bae plays a manufactured servant in 2144 rescued by a man (Sturgess) looking to change the world. The chemistry between the two is palpable, just as it is between Bae and an interrogator (D'Arcy again) in the same era. A shot of Jim Broadbent's 2012 character with the love he thought he lost in 1973 is one that speaks to the tie that binds one era to the next and just how effective it actually was.
From a technical aspect Cloud Atlas is visually splendid whether it's the sun setting over the ocean, the lush greens of 2144 or even the CG-created world of Neo Seoul in 2144. The cinematography of Frank Griebe and John Toll is worthy of the largest screen you can find. I also loved the score, though I don't know whom exactly to credit out of the trio of composers credited -- Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer -- for the theme that runs through the film, but this is likely a score you'll want to add to your collection.
Overall, while the filmmaking ambition largely outweighs the narrative, Cloud Atlas is an achievement worth experiencing in theaters. After seeing it once I still get the feeling there is more for me to explore and perhaps more to be found in the years to come. It's not often filmmakers take such risks as this is a film that could have easily been an incoherent mess. I am concerned audiences will grow tired and impatient with the storytelling and grow uninterested with what is more of a repetitive theme than a revelatory one, but whether audiences accept it or not, this is a film that will have people talking and for that we should be thankful.