Title: Cloud Atlas
Genre(s): Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction
Director(s): Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Genres can be a constriction on a film, letting itself be restricted by boundaries set by the type of film it is. It is more often than not, the movies that defy their genre which intrigue and ‘wow’ audiences. The problems that can arise in any of these films are that they might be plagued with jarring tonal shifts and disconnected story elements which feel like they’re from another film altogether. So what Cloud Atlas has done is provide multiple stories that intersect in many ways, yet retain completely different genres, from science fiction to thriller to comedy. Adapting David Mitchell’s novel of the same name was a daunting task to begin with, and what the Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer have done is craft one of the most ambitious films since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and defied the preconceived notion of how a movie should unfold.
There’s so much to discuss in this film, and it’s hard not to point out the obvious first: Cloud Atlas will divide an audience. It can never be unanimous that this movie is incredible. The ambition is there, but many won’t be able to get past the simple stories and somewhat confusing narrative structure. If one was expecting the movie to play out like Mitchell’s novel does with only one story to pay attention to for a while, that is not what is happening here. The movie cross cuts between stories and then returns to them in no time at all, so every story will remain fresh in your head, unlike how the novel presents it which is a much more linear manner. Unfortunately, what this does is encourage confusion and bewilderment as a scene from 1973 cuts to a 1936 sequence and then to a 2144 story, but the cuts feel natural and at no point disconnects the audience from the stories being told. Not only are the stories interspersed over long periods of time, but they are also separated geographically, taking place in England, San Francisco, and even South Korea. The movie is divisive among audiences and it is because the film does not do what the general audience expects it to: follow the general conventions of a film. The only thing that is generic about Cloud Atlas are the majority of its individual stories that it has to tell, but even then, the fact that they all connect in even the smallest ways is a testament to the power of simplicity.
There are six plots in this film, all connected generally in minor ways, with the exception of actors playing a different role in each storyline. At first, I was preoccupied with trying to find out why the actors played the specific roles they had, and sometimes it’s obvious such as a character having the same archetype in each story, or the character being more developed than the previous one having lived through life once before. However, as I mentioned, the stories are very familiar that Cloud Atlas is trying to tell, both in terms of narrative and also theme. There are three stories that would have entertained on their own and that’s the 1936 one starring Ben Whishaw, the 2144 one starring Doona Bae, and the post-2144 one starring Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, only the second one would have worked with just the material given, but I firmly believe that each story could have been divided into 6 separate movies and expanded upon to give each world a feeling of uniqueness but driving home the main theme of Cloud Atlas, which would be this notion of ‘eternal recurrence.’ I don’t think I completely ‘got’ what the film was driving at beyond this, but that doesn’t change how much I appreciated it. It never felt pretentious and always seemed very grounded despite the massive endeavor behind adapting a novel so wide in scope.
It would be a disservice to this film not to mention the special effects, costumes and make-up in the movie. Once again, this seems like a divisive issue between audiences, but I absolutely loved almost all of the make-up, with the exception of the 2144 timeline. Set in a futuristic version of Seoul, South Korea, many of the actors were forced to appear Asian in order to have the overall theme of the film to still ring true, but the make-up just looks laughably bad. Yet that story also contains the most visually-stunning special effects in a world that feels very reminiscent of Final Fantasy XIII‘s Cocoon location. The costumes are also just universally great, and it really does seem like this film has a chance of winning a few awards for its make-up and costumes. The movie is absolutely gorgeous and that is reason enough to appreciate this film, but it’s also an incredible vision come to life. Few films would ever dare tread where Cloud Atlas has gone, and it will likely be a long time until that happens again due to its budget and box office numbers. Despite being a film bursting at the seams with incredible talent, there isn’t an easy way to sell this movie to the regular movie-goer. Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and Keith David all deliver stellar performances, with the other actors still being well above-average.
Honestly, it will be the discussions of this movie that make it worth seeing alone. I was not a fan of The Master or last year’s Tree of Life, but they are both films that belong with Cloud Atlas. They will spark many conversations that will be interesting and enriching, and that is how you know a film like this is worth having done. Even if the movie didn’t have the amazing special effects, make-up, costumes, acting, and music (a score that is so beautifully composed by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer), there would still be plenty to talk about just because of the scope of the film. I will be honest, I went into the movie expecting a mess that was ambitious but never engaged. I left wondering why the film had stopped. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to stay lost in most of the stories (admittedly, while Broadbent delivered an incredible performance, his story was pure comedic relief and very little else). For a film that is almost 3 hours in length to have made me so engrossed really says something about the movie. If you love the power of cinema, then it is hard not to recommend Cloud Atlas, because it will awe in at least some respect. Very few people will walk out of it getting nothing out of the movie at all.