“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult film to summarize. It is, perhaps, the most ambitious film I have ever seen. The Wachowskis have never been one for small ideas. Even in a career defined by arch ambitions, these two took on a project that actually required a third director to bring it fully to the screen. Tom Tykwer, formally of “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume,” another filmmaker well known for films that others wouldn’t dare tackling, was brought in to film half of the movie. The final result is a beautiful film.
In order to talk about “Cloud Atlas,” you’ve really got to compartmentalize its stories and themes. The word “ambitious” comes to mind again when you realize this is practically six very different films woven together. While each of the stories are vastly different to the point of belonging to different genres, themes, ideas, visuals, characters, and actors recur throughout all of them like musical motifs, elegantly appearing over the course of decades. The clopping of horse hooves transitions into the rumbling of the train tracks. A rush of water cuts to another character, separated by years and miles, submerged in water. The title comes from a piece of music presented in the film and, appropriately, the transition from moment to moment are poetic and natural.
The first of the Wachowski directed sequences, this one prospers from both high production values and strong performances. While it’s very easy to misuse voice-over narration, “Cloud Atlas” uses it’s nicely throughout. Sturgess’ voice reinforces the segment’s themes without being too obvious about it. Sturgess gives a good performance, jumping back and forth between extremely ill and contemplative. Tom Hanks does a surprising turn as the piece’s villain. Hanks has no problem ugling up and downplaying his natural likability in favor of sleazy villainy. David Gyasi, as the escaped slave, is probably the stand-out player. It would have been easy to fall into the Magical Black Man cliché, and you might be able to make the case it still does, but Gyasi creates a full character with personality and flaws. Without going too far into spoiler territory, Hugo Weaving shows up at the end to deliver a theme-defining monologue in his usual tyrannical hiss. It’s amazing how much sinister intent that actor can sum up with a single line-reading. The direction is strong in some moments, like a sail roping scene that is highly intense, but in other moments the Wachowski’s usually strong action direction actually falters some. A late period struggle is shaky and unfocused. It’s the only really distracting moment.
The ’36 sequences, the first Tykwer-directed piece, are probably my least favorite. Most of my issues come out of the late period event that forces the latter half of the story in a different direction. It’s the film’s only dishonest moment. A few characters act differently then you’d expect them too. Even then, there are some extraordinary moments. Someone describes a dream of the film’s future events. The main creative break through, when the sextet first comes together, works well. My favorite bit is near the very end, another dream sequence, when two characters destroy a shop full of fine china in slow-motion. Ben Whishaw, as the on-the-run kid, gives a very good performance, showing off a lot of roguish charm. Jim Broadbent gets his first very meaty role in the film as the grouchy composer. Broadbent is a highly versatile actor and he certainly gets to show his chops here. James D’Arcy, playing the lover, does most of his acting with his face. He has little dialogue. I also take a bit of issue with this segment’s ending, which is actually spoiled at the very beginning. It comes a bit out of nowhere and, once again, seems like a dishonest move for the characters.
Tykwer makes up for the weaknesses of the 1936’s sequences with this one, one of my favorites in the film. Once again, the genre shifts, with these moments belonging squarely to the political thriller genre. Halle Berry, an actress who I’ve never been a big fan, gives a surprisingly good performance here as Luisa Rey, an extraordinarily strong female protagonist. This is a woman who literally pulls herself out of a sinking car. There’s a moment when two characters have to fall in love over a very short period of time. This normally wouldn’t work, you’d think, but the performances pull it off. The direction of Hanks’ characters shift in this moment. Keith David, one of my favorites, has a strong supporting role, even if it doesn’t look like it at first. Hugo Weaving is once again called into play a cold, calculating villain. He’s fantastic in it, of course. In the latter half, this becomes a story about two characters being pursued by one character. Legitimate thrills as engineered in small moments, like someone lurking behind a window, and big ones, like the lights going off on a bridge, a car sailing over the edge. There’s a wry sense of humor to this one which never undermines the tension. Instead, it adds a charming quality. As with all of the elements to this film, this easily could have been a fantastic feature on its own.
Once again, I can’t help but point out the tonal shifts here. In most films, cutting back and forth between such diverging tones would be a problem. Brilliantly, “Cloud Atlas” balances it all. The 2012 moments play out with a light, romantic tone. (It’s that romantic tone that honestly ties the whole film together. More on that later.) Broadbent does great in the lead role, playing his indigent British charm to great effect. Hugh Grant, another reoccurring actor, despite being under some not-totally convincing old age make-up, does the best in his collection of roles. Voice-over is used fantastically again. My favorite moment involves a flashback to younger days, which is pays off a dirty joke in surprisingly light-hearted terms. A character who usually only repeats one phrase has a predictable, but still touching, pay-off. Once it’s confirmed that this is a story about misfits coming together for a mission, it really starts to work. The pub brawl climax is both hilarious and appropriately thrown-together.
The Wachowskis return to familiar territory with this one, an action-heavy sci-fi story that balances big action set pieces with philosophy. Jim Sturgess, despite some not-totally convincing Asian make-up, reveals himself as a surprising action star. Obviously, the Wachowskis are great at engineering action sequences. And they certainly don’t disappoint. There’s a great close-quarters shoot-out which climaxes with a huge chase scene, over the neon blue freeways of the future. The brothers get to indulge their general love of far-out science fiction, with some of the wild visuals on display here. My favorite is the apartment walls that can be set to any climate. Unlike the love story in “The Matrix,” the romantic subplot works extremely well. Doona Bae is obviously the center piece here. The story of someone young and naïve being pulled into an amazing destiny is a standard sci-fi premise, but Bae’s sweet, touching performance holds it all together. She has great chemistry with Sturgess, which is good since their romance is the entire emotional heart of the piece. This storyline got perhaps the biggest response out of me, with touching character work and shocking story reveals.
The biggest obstacle with the far-flung conclusion is that the characters speak in a particular dialect, a degraded English. It takes a while for your ears to tune to the language. Moreso then any other part of the film, “Cloud Atlas” truly creates its own world with this one. The production design is fantastic here, with every hut having a textured, lived-in quality to it. When we climb out of the villages into the mountains, the eye for detail continues. Some spellbinding visuals result here, such as a satellite dish that opens up like a blossom. Probably the most intriguing aspect revolves around Weaving’s demon, a character that tempts, influences, Hank’s simple shepherd. Watching Hanks resist and handle this evil whispers is fascinating. It’s probably Hank’s best performance in the film. Once again, him and Berry have a surprising chemistry. Surprisingly, this story also erupts into action-movie violence near the end, which is very intense and effective. The entire film is tied together with an epilogue set even further in the future.
I can’t imagine what the editors on this film went through. The film truly would not have been as good if the six stories were told in solid blocks. Cutting them together, the main theme here is brilliantly illustrated. Acts of kindness and cruelty ripple throughout time. A brilliant moment comes near the end. In the distance future, a character describes her hope that she will be reunited with her love after death. In the past, her words are mirrored in actions. Casting the same actors in numerous parts are far more then just a gimmick. It’s integral to the movie’s entire point.
My biggest issue with “Cloud Atlas” is that the make-up is wildly inconsistent. When you have men playing women and vice-versa, it can come off as just a little distracting, especially when the character is an important one. Overall, that’s a very minor issue. It’s a real shame that “Cloud Atlas” failed to find an audience at the theater. That it’s over three hour longs certainly didn’t help its case in mall cineplexs. (The length is never an issue, not when there’s this much story to cover.) Well, I loved it. After the divisive “Speed Racer” and “Matrix” sequels, this is bound to put the Wachowskis back on track, I suspect. Though probably a much cheaper one. [Grade: A]