By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Keith David, Ben Whishaw and James D’arcy
In March of 1999, about a month and a half before Star Wars: Phantom Menace opened to widespread anticipation, a little science fiction film written and directed by two filmmaking siblings named the Wachowskis arrived. With the curious title of The Matrix, the film was ambitious in its storytelling and groundbreaking in its visual effects. It was so groundbreaking, that The Matrix was able to do the impossible and surpass expectations of even the hardest of the hardcore Star Wars fans and in turn become the most talked about science fiction film of the year. In essence, the Wachowskis indeed crafted a masterpiece of science fiction storytelling, and, in the 13 years since, despite having done two expensive but not as well received Matrix sequels and ambitious projects such as V For Vendetta and (the criminally underrated) Speed Racer, the moniker of masterpiece was always reserved for that one magnificent display of filmmaking from 1999. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cloud Atlas. A movie that isn’t as much a film as it is a journey. It is about how some souls can improve & evolve over time, while others start off well and disintegrate. Finally, there are others that have no hope whatsoever. Full of aggresive storytelling and anxious moments, Cloud Atlas is a special triumph and feat in that $100 million was spent to tell as ambitious a tale (based on the book by David Mitchell) in this age of unwilling to take a chance filmmaking.
Let me weave this to our readers one step at a time. First of all, if you are one of those people who couldn’t wrap your head around seeing Travolta die and, in turn, show up not 10 minutes later in Pulp Fiction, this film is not for you. There are many characters in this thing, and this happens more than once here, and in fact may be one of many reasons why you will dismiss it. Think of Cloud Atlas as something in which everything is done in multiples. The film isn’t just one story. It is six. That’s right folks. The movie is SIX films rolled into one. An ambitious project to say the least. However, once the book landed in the hands of the Wachowskis (initially given to them by Natalie Portman on the Vendetta set), they never hesitated. And, in enlisting Run Lola, Run director Tom Tykwer to help them put the puzzle of its story together, they displayed another example of the conglomerate nature of the project. Even before the title of the film is flashed onscreen, we are given the initial rundown of each character’s story. At this point, if you are not with it, then you will not be with it at any point in the film. However, it is done so seamlessly that I was grabbed, and from that moment on never let go for the remainder of its 172 minute running time.
As someone who has reviewed literally hundreds of movies over the years, I am sad to say that as a film, Cloud Atlas is almost impossible to summarize. However, that is not to say it is hard to follow. What I will say is that each and every actor in the cast has to take on, that’s right, multiple characters. Hanks takes a chance that makes what he did in 2004’s Ladykillers look like another Meg Ryan rom-com. I respected his ability to go from the character of a mountain man having to overcome his fears to gangster with a nicely trimmed goatee cursing like Joe Pesci in Good Fellas almost seamlessly. Berry was more than tolerable as the 70s reporter on the same case her late father took on involving the slimy head of a nuclear power plant (Grant). It is the way her and Hanks’ story unravels that becomes one of two romantic elements of the story. And, while I didn’t always believe their chemistry, their portions were full of heart. Grant and Weaving both play mean characters throughout (with Weaving at one point even donning scary make-up for a character that is almost like the-devil-on-the shoulder of Hanks). However, while all these performances ranged from very good to great, there were two that stood out to me the most. Broadbent, in a sure to be Oscar nominated series of roles, is brilliant. In particular, his role of a composer looking to hold onto his fortunes as another musician (Whishaw) looks to take it over is poignant and well told, and the way Broadbent constructs his characters’ trials & tribulations is brilliant. The other performance that really stood out to me was Brae. Whether she is playing a prostitute in distress or a mom, Bae does more acting with her eyes than anyone I have ever seen. You sense each emotion and inner conflict her character is feeling at any given time. Here, Brae brings the sense of triumph that every great actor brings, and it is exceptionally brilliant seeing how all three directors make it a point to show close-ups of her face every chance they get.
Speaking of the direction, it is uncanny to think that three directors can direct a film and have it all feel like the same vision. But, the Wachowski siblings and Twyker, remarkably, make the film as seamless as if it was told through one person’s eyes. And, you can call it pretentiousness (which i have heard many times in describing this film) but in a word, I think what they display the most here is heart. Each scene set-up, each spoken word and each interaction made the film’s themes seem relevant to its overall arc and theme. Sure, they include dialogue containing shots at critics (one character even describes a critic as ‘someone who reads quickly and quietly, but never wisely’), but overall, I would say their tone is perfect. To add on to its feel, Cloud Atlas’ cinematography, costumes and production design are streamlined to the point of perfection. There are times when Cloud Atlas feels so dark and rainy that it could be Blade Runner. Others it feels as colorful as Speed Racer. Point being, Cloud Atlas is never dull to look at, and the stories that evolve onscreen make it nearly perfect to the tones that are created around it.
This is not to say the film is perfect, however. The make-up design, while at times effective (loved Weaving’s devilish design), it was at others very faulty (Sturgess’ Korean make-up is utterly ridiculous and looks like it belongs in New Hope’s cantina scene). Also, the dialogue was not always the best (some of Hanks and Berrys’ scenes had dialogue that made me want to place my head in my hands). But, overall, Cloud Atlas is right up there on my list of must see movies for the year. It is a film in which nothing displayed or spoken should be seen as a coincidence. It is a visual and audio marvel that should be seen and heard to be believed. But, most of all, it is a film in which every scene had the intentions of telling an artistic story that mattered. And, in this age of Transformers films being made for the sake of landing on a Happy Meal, this is really saying something. As is the fact that once it was over I was already making plans to see it again. In fact, in keeping up with the themes of the film, I just may see it multiple times. Go see Cloud Atlas. You may love it. You may hate it. But, I am sure you will agree that it is as ambitious as it is enthralling.
4.5 out of 5