An exhilarating piece of tour-de-force filmmaking, Cloud Atlas divided critics and audiences when it opened in the US last month; Roger Ebert declared it to be “one of the most ambitious films ever made” while Rex Reed called it “a trash heap of rubber noses and implausible high school accents that give new meaning to the word ‘pretentious’.”
Ambitious, definitely, pretentious, probably. But love it or hate it, this is undeniably a bold and visionary piece of work that defies easy description or categorization or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ generalizations. I cannot proclaim to fully understand Cloud Atlas, or fully explain why it is a great film; I can only report that I was completely spellbound for the entire duration of its nearly 3-hour running time.
Directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), from the supposedly ‘unfilmable’ 2004 novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas tells six stories set centuries apart but bound together through both thematic and literal devices.
In 1849, while sailing from the Pacific Islands to San Francisco, lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) falls ill while under the care of doctor Henry Goose (Tom Hanks). His journal is later read in 1936 Cambridge by bisexual musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who is assisting famed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) while working on his own composition, The Cloud Atlas Sextet, and communicating with lover Robert Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
In 1974 San Francisco, Sixsmith gives Frobisher’s letters – along with a report detailing criminal misdoings by a large company – to investigative reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry). Rey’s story is later read by Timothy Cavendish (also Broadbent) in 2012 London, who has been tricked into admitting himself into a retirement home by his conniving brother (Hugh Grant).
Cavendish’s exploits later become a film partially seen by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a ‘fabricant’ (clone) engineered to work in a fast food restaurant in 2144 Neo Seoul. The final story is set on a post-apocalyptic island “106 years after the fall”, where primitive tribesman Zachry (Hanks) is visited by the more advanced ‘prescient’ Meronym (Berry).
That’s a lot of material to get through, and fully grasping any one of these stories can prove overwhelming; that’s before you even get to the “everything is connected” concept of the film as a whole, drawing thematic parallels between the diverse stories.
But that’s one of the pure joys of Cloud Atlas: discovering the unifying aspects of the human condition that may only be hinted at by the stories that are on the screen. Each person is likely to take away something different from the film, from each viewing.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer each directed three segments of the film separately, using their own crew: the Wachowskis handled the 1849 and futuristic storylines, while Tykwer took over the 1936, 1974, and contemporary parts. While the Wachowski segments are roughly similar in tone – and might be perceived as heavy-handed – the Tykwer segments are impressively divergent, ranging from period melodrama to 70s paranoia thriller to farcical comedy; they really help balance the film and keep the 3-hour experience from becoming oppressive.
But it’s the way that the stories are cut together that really makes Cloud Atlas what it is. Unlike the novel, which presented each story as long segments that are only interrupted at a single key point, the film completely intercuts everything: we rarely get more than two or three minutes of any particular story before we cut to the next one.
Editing isn’t usually highlighted as a key aspect of the filmmaking process, but the proficiency of the work done here (by Alexander Berner) really helps heighten the immediacy of the storylines and overall theme of interconnectedness. Intercutting is now so routine we rarely pay attention to it, but this is one of the most innovative uses since, what – Griffith’s Birth of a Nation?
The original score, composed by Tykwer and longtime collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, is another integral aspect to the film, both creating a separate feel for the individual stories and carefully linking them together. The central theme, which is repeated with slight variations throughout the film, is beautiful and haunting.
Personal identity is also a key theme here, enhanced by the decision to use the same actors in multiple roles throughout the different storylines, some appearing as different races (which has caused some commotion) or genders (and of course, co-director Lana Wachowski used to be Larry Wachowski).
The makeup work is generally phenomenal (indeed, I was unable to recognize some of the leads in their smaller roles) but occasionally too artificial; particularly, I’m thinking of the old-age work (which never seems to be fully convincing) on Grant and D’Arcy.
But for whatever minor qualms I had about Cloud Atlas, I was completely entranced for the entire ride. It’s a bold and ambitious piece of filmmaking that demands to be seen and analyzed, and reseen and reanalyzed.