Review: Cloud Atlas

Storytelling in our culture is in a bit of a rut. We’ve become far too accustomed to narratives that start before a precipitous event, have something dramatic transpire, then have it all resolve such that the protagonist overcomes obstacles both external and internal. Elapsed time? 90-100 minutes total. Simple. Boring. That’s why when a film like Inception comes along, it generates so much discussion: It forces us to question the very nature of dreams and reality.

The latest film in this ilk is the breathtaking and complex Cloud Atlas, a sci-fi drama that has such a temporally complex narrative that it’s almost impossible to describe what happens in a review. The story takes place simultaneously across a span of hundreds of years, ranging from a sequence set in the late 1800s to a future storyline in mid 22nd century Neo Seoul to another narrative that turns out to be so far in the future that, a la the dark, dystopic future of The Time Machine, civilization has returned to crude, primitive roots.

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is about love and karma, about how actions we take affect our futures, not just our future in this life but in subsequent lives too. The film is also a tour-de-force of makeup and acting, with the key roles from all the storylines played almost exclusively by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent. Hanks in particular shows an extraordinary range in his Oscar-worthy performance that demonstrates the astonishing breadth of his acting ability.

Directed and produced by the Wachowskis, film partners that brought us the splendid philosophical sci-fi thriller The Matrix, followed by a long string of mediocre films that culminated in the dizzying and disappointing 2008 film Speed Racer, this returns them to the forefront of innovation and narrative depth in Hollywood, though it remains to be seen whether a large audience will endure the almost three hour running time and Byzantine narrative that requires you to pay close attention throughout.

Nonetheless, this was a surprise and is one of the best and most profound films of the year. With its historical sequences intermingled with present-day, self-reflective wry commentaries on publishing and media in our modern age and an Orwellian future with visuals that offer a novel and alarming vision, Cloud Atlas is a must see. And quite possibly a must see on an IMAX screen, to fully appreciate the sweeping panoramas and worlds that remind us that everything we do, every interaction with another person, truly is connected.

To be fair, however, not everything in Cloud Atlas hits the right note. Some of the makeup seems a bit more like a quick Halloween fright than a complex Hollywood makeup job, and the inclusion of Hugo Weaving as the malevolent representative of contemporary society in multiple story threads continually brought to mind his iconic role as Mr. Smith in The Matrix. Perhaps that speaks to how many times I’ve watched that film, however, rather than a weakness in Cloud Atlas itself.

Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) and Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks) in modern-day England, from “Cloud Atlas”

There are also a few scenes that are quite shocking, one of which is subtly foreshadowed when Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) tries to escape a repressive retirement home and yells to the remaining residents “Soylent Green is People!”. Later in the film – and in a narrative thread from 2144 Neo Seoul — Sonmi-541 (Doona Bae) learns that there are dire consequences to being a genetically engineered worker in an sterile future, in a scene that proves horrific, and likely too intense for younger viewers.

Still, the lead actors play so many different roles that it’s quite entertaining to see how many you can recognize as the narrative bounces around, often second by second, between the five centuries of story unfolding simultaneously. Tom Hanks and Halle Barry each play six roles as the primary couple, ranging from the 1840’s where Hanks is the evil Dr Goose and Berry is a Maori slave to 24th century Hawaii with Hanks as the simple goatherder Zachry and Berry as Meronym, an emissary of a group of humans called Prescients.

Like all well crafted narratives, the film awards attention with innumerable forward and backward references, where in one segment a character talks about a favorite book and then we see, in an earlier segment, the same actor in a different character actually writing the book. The most significant, however, is the deification of Sonmi-541 to being a goddess worthy of worship hundreds of years further into the future.

Cloud Atlas is a film in the epic, sweeping, complex sense of the word, a cinematic experience that, even with its blemishes and occasional shocking and uncomfortable moments, is one of the first must-see movies of the year. From its superb editing style that’ll constantly amaze you with transitions that leap hundreds of years for a few seconds at a time to the splendid acting of the entire cast to the rich musical score, wardrobe and sets that become the fabric of the movie, I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas and plan on seeing it again before it leaves the theater. Go see it. You’ll be impressed.

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