Cloud Atlas (2012): Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski. Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, and Susan Sarandon. Rated R for: violence, language, sexuality, nudity, and some drug use. Running Time: 172 minutes. Based on the novel by David Mitchell.
Rating: 4/4 stars
After an entire weekend spent brooding, I’m still not sure what to say about Cloud Atlas. It is a film that many movies try to be, and very few actually succeed in becoming, taking the viewer on a unique, interesting, and visually dazzling journey that reaches across genres. Is it the best movie of 2012? I’m not sure yet. However, I feel certain that it will be remembered as one of the most significant films of the past few years. It is certainly one of the most ambitious I’ve ever seen. The closest comparison my scrambling mind can come up with is the broken-timeline structure of Pulp Fiction, but even that cult classic can’t hold a candle to Cloud Atlas in terms of its sheer audacity and determination to fly in the face of storytelling convention.
As you can easily pick up on from the trailers, Cloud Atlas tells not just one story, but several (six, to be precise), encompassing a roughly 500-year time span, from the mid-19th century to after the Apocalypse. On top of that, rather than simply showing these various stories chronologically, the film cuts in and out of each at powerful, climactic, or poignant moments, challenging the audience at each turn to keep up with six different narratives simultaneously. That each of the six stories would function as perfectly good short films in their own right is impressive enough, but the film goes one step further of attempting to make the ideas and events in each one overlap with and reflect upon the others, creating a tapestry out of themes like love, reincarnation, human companionship, and the superficiality of race, gender, and sexuality. And, even more amazingly, it works. The editing and direction are clever and tight enough to keep the whole enterprise from spinning out of control, or buckling under its own dense weight.
On top of offering the audience a bevy of fun stories to follow along with, the movie further reinforces the constant theme of reincarnation by using primarily the same core group of actors as the main characters in each storyline, with each actor switching between main roles and brief cameos, good guys and bad guys, and, on occasion, appearing as different races and even genders. Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Halle Berry alone can be found in all six segments, and Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are seen in five. Thankfully, there is not a single dull or lackluster performance to be heard, as every single member of the cast brings their all to each and every role they’re given.
The aforementioned changes between historical eras, races, and genders are accomplished by a truly jaw-dropping variety of what are easily the best makeup effects of the year. What’s truly wonderful to watch is how the makeup is just enough to convey the switch from the character’s previous role, but is always subtle enough that you can usually tell which actor is playing which character. I will not spoil a single one of the major makeup accomplishments here. Trust me, this film is better seen when you don’t know what’s coming. Even if none of the actors get nomination nods come Oscar season, I can’t begin to imagine another film taking Best Makeup (if another one does, then the Academy is in more dire straights than I thought).
The end result of all this is something expansive, challenging, and immensely rewarding to sit through. I was not bored or distracted for a minute watching this film- there was always something to look at, always a past scene to compare with what I was seeing, always something in the shot or dialogue to make me think. Cloud Atlas is that rare film that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve been on a long, fascinating journey. From the opening shot of an aged Tom Hanks ruminating over a fire to his final monologue, I sat in my chair in the middle of the theater and felt myself fly across the ages, from a classic ship adventure to a political thriller to a Matrix-style futuristic revolution and beyond. And it was one hell of a ride.
Cloud Atlas is a film that many people will disagree on. Plenty of viewers are certain to be turned off by the constant jumps between timelines and the subsequent demands made on one's attention. Critics seem divided as well, with many panning the film for being shallow or too dense to really signify anything. While everyone is free to have their own opinion, I must say I could not disagree more. Cloud Atlas never lacks for things to say, and if the overarching, final “message” (if, indeed, there is one to be found) is not immediately obvious, all the better I say.
As I said before, I have not yet decided if this is my new Best Film of the year. I don’t think it’s an objectively “better” movie than The Master, or Moonrise Kingdom, or even Seven Psychopaths. What I do think is that it is a perfect example of the wonderful potential of the cinema. It is a film that shoots for the stars, that lives large and takes huge risks. But while making its broad strokes, it never forgets to fill in the smaller details that make watching it an act of discovery, and not just simple entertainment. In the space of just under three hours, I felt joy, sadness, longing, awe, wonder, hope, and dread. I would feel my heart break during one scene, and by the end of the next I’d be howling with laughter. And, as the final shot of a star-filled sky faded away into darkness, my eyes began to fill with tears.
I can’t ask more from a movie that than.