“Cloud Atlas” has planted its feet firmly in the race for the most divisive film of all time.
This is a film that either grabs you firmly or distances you dramatically within about 5 minutes, which means that for the remaining 167, you’re either drudging through misery or high on the buzz of the thing. A $100 million independent film with largely European financing, it uses the same cast of actors under the direction of two separate film crews — one lead by Tom Twyker of “Run Lola Run”, and the other headed up by “Matrix” masterminds Andy and Lana Wachowski — each directing three of the segments. Just as they are interwoven in the film, it’s strongly suggested that the actors themselves are playing one soul taking up six different bodies in six different times. With me so far?
While composed of varying technical and tonal approaches, it’s as fully formed a vision as could be. Through six interconnected stories — cutting across time, countries, perhaps even planets — it seems to be dwelling on the consequences that morality hold in our own lives, affecting the future in totally unpredictable ways. Taken together, these arcs serve as a testament to the ability of the human spirit’s strength and uplift, whose very existence remains an unheard-of event in a Hollywood ravaged by creative indifference and financial fervency.
The stories “Cloud Atlas” tells are, in short and in order — an 1849 lawyer who befriends a slave as an evil doctor threatens to trap both with poison & greed, a 1936 Scottish composer who’s laboring over what he considers to be his masterpiece, a 1975 female journalist investigating local corruption at the endangerment of her friends & herself, a 2012 publisher who attempts escape from a nursing home after his brother places him there as a cruel prank, a 22nd century Korean clone who is freed by a daring revolutionary, & a humble post-apocalyptic villager who travels in search of a rumored, fallen society. Shit’s a lot to chew on. But “Cloud Atlas” not only involves us deeply in all of these, but it actually makes its own jumbled structure into a pleasure. We grow to admire the clever transitions between stories to understand these souls’ progressions through time, and to become restless waiting for the next moment even as we bask in the greatness of the present one.
For a film of such unmatched ambition, “Cloud Atlas” is nakedly, even admirably emotional. Each of the film’s stories have two or three scenes that make me well up, even just reflecting on it. It’s due in no small part to Tom Twyker’s swooning score, containing some of 2012’s most haunting, elegant melodies. I speak not just for film soundtracks, but music itself. But really, the emotional heights here are worthy of the likes of Spielberg or Capra. In fact, it often feels like six Spielberg films in one, which is amazing considering how distinctly it feels like the work of its creators.
Although they direct separate segments — Twyker with the 1936, 1975 & 2012 segments, with the Wachowskis taking up the 1849 & futuristic ones — “Cloud Atlas” was still jointly structured, written, and conceived. It often evokes a poem rhyming itself, in both the boldest and subtlest of ways. Taking aside the obvious connections (same actors, occasional overlapping characters), this is a meticulously constructed movie, with little lines of dialogue, identically constructed rooms, even musical notes, all subtly rooting the interconnectivity of the films. The film doesn’t cut from scene to scene. It glides.
For all of the high-wire directorial effort, “Cloud Atlas” is as fearless and feckless an actor’s showcase as any. The cast — amazingly not mentioned until now — includes Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Donna Bae, Keith David, Ben Whishaw, and a little-known thespian by the name of Tom Hanks. These people have to both create six individuals with their own arcs and attributes, and yet demonstrate that, over time, these are one soul, gliding from one era to the next. And how do they respond to this burden? Well in short, they have fun.
Particularly daring feats of make-up include Halle Berry as an Asian man, Keith David a white man, Hugo Weaving a woman, the Korean-born Donna Bae a Hispanic woman, Jim Sturgess a Korean action-hero, and Hugh Grant a feral tribal chief. Many have questioned the ‘good taste’ of these actors in these roles, but really, by doing so, “Cloud Atlas” bravely breaks down racial and gender boundaries, affirming the uniformity of human essence. Men and woman swapping roles also takes on a particular poignance in the film, as director Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry, is a recently outed transsexual, whose public dignity and conduct has been an inspiration to many.
These are great performances, and alas, individually evaluating them is difficult. In “Cloud Atlas”‘s world, to evaluate nine actors is to evaluate 54 performances. These actors have taken a tremendous weight onto their shoulders, and without exception pull it off.
The film seems to repeat a key motif in its various segments: freedom. Breaking free of confines, whether literal or spiritual. Irony of all ironies? The film itself is an act of rebellion. Not just against a system that was reluctant to fund it, but against just about every limitation cinema seems to set for itself. This is a movie where high-speed chases across futuristic Korean cityscapes are mere seconds away from Tom Hanks & Halle Berry sparking up a joint. Very little rationale is offered for the tonal insanity, just a ‘love it or leave it’ attitude. Depending on your sensibilities, “Cloud Atlas” is either a middle-finger or a warm hug. I’ve yet to let go. A