★★★½ out of 5
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent
Directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run)
What is an ocean but a multitude of drops? Andy and Lana Wachowski teamed with director Tom Tykwer in an attempt to adapt some of the most ambitious material written. Cloud Atlas is a novel by David Mitchell that interweaves time periods, characters and separate stories to create a mosaic of causality and connection. This material did not have a chance in hell of being funded by a major American studio. So the German independent film firms A Company, ARD Degeto Film and X Filme helped fun this film and also with funding from the entire German government. As you can tell, these studios wanted Cloud Atlas to be as big as possible. And it was. It is now one of the most expensive independent films ever made at $102 million.
Cloud Atlas chronicles the connections between six different time periods. The Pacific Ocean in the 1850s. Belgium in the 1930s. California in the 1970s. An early 21th Century England. A Korean dystopian near future. And finally, a Hawaii post apocalyptic future. Read that, and you just go “wow”. The Wachowskis and Tykwer split the principal photography of this film. The Wachowskis were in charge of both futuristic periods and the 19th century tale. Tykwer did the other three. Yet Cloud Atlas never seems like it was directed by three individuals. It is very much one massive cinematic journey that flows surprisingly well for a run time of 172 minutes.
I think it would be much easier for me to credit the actors for their work than to go through the endless amount of characters they play. Tom Hanks stands out as the main actor in this story, and it is some of his best work in years. Even his comical characters hit. Halle Berry also bounces back from a career slump in this gem. And the rest of the incredible cast including Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant. Every single one of these actors are asked to play so many characters that it is amazing how they all seem distinct. And even invisible at times.
Their invisibility comes courtesy of incredible production value and also incredible make up. There was a montage at the end of the film where it highlighted all the stars, and which characters they played. Some of them are obvious. But other just completely wow you with how unrecognizable they are. This is due to practical and CGI make up as they are made up to be in different races, ages and cultures. The effects and production value really make Cloud Atlas feel like you are on cloud nine. A constant state of awe-inspiring feeling.
But with all this grandeur, it seems inevitable that Cloud Atlas falls short on its ambitious themes of connection, reincarnation, fate and choice. The Wachowskis grounded their philosophical ideas in Hong Kong style action with their Matrix Trilogy. Tykwer even made Run Lola Run seem like some twisted, wild crack in time with Lola being able to try the events of her life over again. Cloud Atlas seems to forcefully, and many times obviously link itself together making the pretensions of the ideas more apparent. It is such a challenge to try and make ideas like this so immersive. But I believe the larger than life scale is what is to be celebrated here, not necessarily the brains behind it.
Other films like Cloud Atlas are much more about what you feel than what you think. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life took on the universe with a loose story that made everything in the universe seem so important. Those ideas were massive, but grounded in one story that seemed to cause a ripple in the universe. Cloud Atlas has so many characters, stories, times and culture, that it is a mystery wrapped in a quandary. It is so dense that you do want to figure out what it all means. But at the same time, you are still satisfied without knowing everything. Cloud Atlas has a lot of thinking than can be exhausting at times.
But the reward of seeing Cloud Atlas, especially on the big screen, is just too good to pass up. Yes, it is a long movie. But it is the furthest thing from boring. You sit there utterly stupefied. Cloud Atlas maintains a constant sweeping feeling, making this epic well worth sitting through. I can guarantee this film will start conversation in terms of its story and the amazing technicalities. But I don’t believe that its ideas will ever truly be penetrated. Cloud Atlas represents a remarkable risk on the part of the funders. It seems inevitable that Cloud Atlas will be a box office flop. But you would be a fool not to see it. An engineering feat that is the biggest of the year, Cloud Atlas has audacious ambition, striking features and moving tones that I cannot stress enough. And after the film, when you stagger from the theater gobsmacked by what you just saw, that film will be the first thing you talk about. Not your plans later, friends or anything else. Cloud Atlas will be the biggest topic of conversation.
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