There are a lot of people out there who are going to love Cloud Atlas. Reversely, there are a lot of people out there who are going to hate Cloud Atlas. Me? I sat in the theater intrigued, enthralled and more than a little impressed that such box office heavyweights – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant – and major Hollywood studio would throw their weight behind such an ambitious project with relatively little chance of return on investment.
Cloud Atlas spans no less than six stories that take place in the past, recent past, present, future, and far future. Several of the actors play multiple parts in all six storylines, which builds on and sells the film’s themes of life, truth, and the inter-connectivity of all people across the barriers of time and space. It’s a classic science fiction story of big ideas, and that’s in spite of the fact that several of the stories don’t even have what would conventionally be considered science fiction elements.
In the 1830s, a young lawyer tries to help a stowaway slave on a boat ride to San Francisco as the ship’s doctor tries to poison him. In 1930s Scotland, a young gay man leaves his lover and becomes apprentice to an aging composer. Forty years later, an ambitious reporter falls into a story of deadly, corporate corruption. In present day London, a book publisher becomes a victim of circumstance as he goes from having a best selling novel to ending up forcible indentured in a nursing home. In the early 22nd century, service industry workers are slave labor to a society of consumers, until one woman becomes a symbol for equality. And in the very far future, 100 years “after the fall,” a scientist seeks the means to contact Earth’s off-world colonies with the help of a simple, almost prehistoric like people.
Aside from the actors, directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski weave light threads between each of the various stories. But what’s especially impressive is that they don’t dumb anything down. The film opens with a Hanks’ character from the far future story, sitting in front of a fire delivering a soliloquy, like the beginning of a Shakespeare play. We then get introductory glimpses into each of the other stories, they go by in a flash and as you struggle to keep up you’re getting a sense of the larger work at play. Fortunately, the directors take it easy on us and throttle back to to ease us into the story on each level. Where it goes from there is up to you, the viewer, I think.
The problem with Cloud Atlas is that people’s whose taste rarely tread beyond the typical Hollywood hogwash are going to be blown away with just how deep this movie is. I remember when Inception came out in the summer of 2010 and hearing people talk about how complex it was, and how one almost had to bring a notepad into the cinema with them to keep everything straight. When I saw Inception a couple of weeks later, this proverbial Rubix cube of a maze of a Chinese finger trap of a film never materialized. Sure, it was complex, but I didn’t need a program to keep it all straight.
Another apt comparison might be Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, an art house hit and Academy Award nominee that many felt was given a free pass to deep thematic appreciation because no one wanted to admit that the didn’t get lest they were perceived by the rest of the audience as being stupid. Some of that comes into play in Cloud Atlas, but Tykwer and the Wachowskis are speaking with a clear voice. Granted, they’re reaching back to deal with some of the same stuff they dealt with in the first Matrix, but unlike, say, Speed Racer, it seems like they have something to say again with this film.
And some of it works better than others, and sometimes it seems certain stories are put on pause for too long as attention is drawn to other areas. The chapter that takes place at sea in 1839 was surprisingly lifeless most of the time, but Jim Broadbent as the publisher that ends up trapped in the nursing home with a Nurse Ratched tormentor played by Hugo Weaving had some great highlights and some very funny scenes. There are some rather derivative beats in the 193os music plot and the 1970s business corruption story, but the performances make it work. For style points though it goes to the 22nd century adventure in Neo- Seoul, which realizes better than any other live-action film the vibe and aesthetic of Japanese anime classics like Akira and Ghosts in the Machine.
In the end, Cloud Atlas maybe a case of the parts on their own being greater than the sum. One watches the film transfixed, which is a marvel at the nearly three hour running time. Established Hollywood filmmakers like the Wachowskis are rarely this brazen, or this bold, and I feel that if nothing else, Cloud Atlas should be saluted in those terms. It’s challenging in all the good ways a film should be challenging, but its far from perfect, and in the conflict between those two facts lies the lightening rod that fans will be discussing this film around now and into the future.
On a final note, you may remember the release of Prometheus early this year was the film that was supposed to save big budget science fiction filmmaking, and you may remember how well that turned out. More to the point, I would say that Cloud Atlas fills that order. It suffers from the same problem of thinking itself more ambitious than it actually is, but in terms of audacity and scale, then Cloud Atlas definitely trumps Prometheus. But perhaps that will be the debate of 2012, which movie speaks to the future more… I leave to you Bastards to decide now.