When I first saw the trailer for this film, I dismissed it as ridiculous and silly, and something I didn't want to see because the scope and ambition seemed to overreach, but once the major critics became so polarized about the film with half saying it's brilliant and the other half saying it's a hot mess, I figured I had to go and at least see which side of the aisle I would fall. I'll admit that there is a lot about Cloud Atlas that is ridiculous and silly, and I can see all the arguments against it, all the arguments I could make, but I don't want to make. I don't want to make those arguments because I can honestly say that I'm part of the crowd that looks past those things. I'm part of the crowd that allowed this movie to sweep me up and take me on its insane ride, regardless of stuff making no sense, literally. I'm part of the crowd that loved this movie and I'm part of the crowd that thinks that Cloud Atlas is one of the best movies of the year. I guess I'm part of the crowd that's crazy.
Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer adapted this film from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell. The novel is a series of six short stories that were connected in some way, but separated by jumps, sometimes huge jumps, in time. The book isn't the usual anthology. Each of its stories is revealed to be a story that is read or observed by a character in the next. The first five stories are half-told successively, except for the sixth, which is told in full and becomes the novel's keystone or pivot point. The novel then goes back and tells the other halves of the first five stories but in reverse order as they were first introduced.
While it might have been less divisive, the film doesn't take that same structure. The film tells all six stories in a parallel fashion, concurrently, cutting back-and-forth between all of them. It doesn't tell one story at a time. It tells them all at once. It also does the opposite of the book in that it begins and ends with what was the keystone or fulcrum of the novel. That keystone is the story of Zachry, played by Tom Hanks, a primitive and tribal warrior who looks like a man who has been stranded on a tropical island with no access to any technology for decades, basically the end result of Hanks' character in Castaway. Yet, he has a family and lives in a small village that he constantly has to defend from marauders, ones not that dissimilar from those in Apocalypto.
Zachry may look and act primitive, but he actually lives on the Big Isle in the 23rd century, a fact that is made evident when Meronym, played by Halle Berry, arrives. Meronym looks like she could be a black Princess Leia or someone from Star Wars who ends up taking Zachry on a journey, which could be compared to the recent journey seen in John Carter. Some intense action and danger immediately thrust us into this environment, but obvious questions arise like why does this future feel like the past. What happened to the world we know? Are there remnants of that world? What survived? What didn't? What persists despite the passage of time? And, why does it?
These questions might not immediately come to mind, especially not in the first 30 minutes, which is just a round robin of introducing not only Zachry's story but the stories of the five others. Yet, thinking about the film after watching it, those questions are forefront. Cloud Atlas isn't just about finding the connections or links that tie the six stories together or rather string them along. Tykwer and the Wachowskis make finding those links pretty easy. It's about where those stories lead their characters. An atlas, after all, is a collection of maps and maps not only help us to know where we are but to help us find where we're going. Atlas was also a Greek Titan who bore the weight of the world, a great burden that could apply to some of the characters here.
The first character, chronologically, is Adam Ewing, played by Jim Sturgess. Ewing is a lawyer who sets sail from California to the Pacific Islands in 1849 on a ship that on a stop in Polynesia unknowingly picks up an escaped slave. The second is Robert Frobisher, played by Ben Whishaw, a gay music student and amanuensis for a composer in Cambridge, England, 1936. The third is Luisa Rey, played also by Halle Berry, a reporter who gets a tip about a conspiracy involving a nuclear power plant in 1973 and people willing to kill to keep certain secrets about it. The fourth is Timothy Cavendish, played by Jim Broadbent, a publisher of a 2012 book by a scandalous author. The fifth is Sonmi, played by Doona Bae, a Korean waitress in 2144 who becomes the symptom and the chosen symbol for a revolution against a totalitarian dystopia.
When filming all six stories, Tykwer and the Wachowskis divided up the labor. They divided up the characters. Tykwer directed the stories of Forbisher, Luisa Rey and Timothy Cavendish. The Wachowskis directed the stories of Adam Ewing, Sonmi and Zachry. With each character's story, the directors gave each its own distinct tone and genre. As I said, Zachry goes on a journey similar to that of John Carter. Ewing is in Mutiny on the Bounty. Forbisher is in a Merchant Ivory movie. Luisa Rey is in Three Days of the Condor. Cavendish is in a British, old people farce and Sonmi is in a Blade Runner meets The Matrix-hybrid.
Impressively, the stories never feel like rip-offs of those movies. This is perhaps due to the editing, which zips the audience all around time and space, overlapping and echoing moments in such a way that it's never just one movie. Cloud Atlas feels like all those movies all at once. This contrasts movies with multiple directors like Paris je t'aime where each story feels separate and isolated, solo performances, whereas Cloud Atlas sounds and looks more like a harmonious symphony.
Some might feel it repetitive or not harmonious at all, but one theme that keeps popping up is oppression. The obvious example is that of slavery, but the movie never becomes about slavery because depicting social ills isn't really the film's goal. The film's goal, much like an atlas, is to be a map to perhaps show us how we get to those ills, that oppression. At its core, oppression is basically putting another person down because you think less of that person. That appears to be at the core here. That appears to be what all the main characters have to battle, oppression of some kind, be it racism or homophobia. Some characters overcome those oppressions. Some don't, but, as the map takes shape, the directors entertain with excitement and hilarity.
This film does have good doses of comedy. Some could find the comedy inherent in the fact that it's not just Halle Berry but all of the actors play multiple characters in each of the six stories. In fact, most of the actors, including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, have sextuple duty. Hanks and Berry along with a few others play six different characters. At times, it gets to be comical. The most comical though would have to be Wachowski favorite Hugo Weaving who in all six stories plays a villain. Two-time Oscar nominee Tom Hanks plays a bad guy in a couple of stories, but mostly maintains his good guy personae. Weaving, however, doesn't escape his pigeonhole of being the consummate person of which to be scared.
Cloud Atlas is science-fiction. It's slick. It's scruffy. It's sexy. It's savage. It's scintillating. It's silly. It's sad. It's shocking. It's sumptuous. It's circular, and I loved this movie.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and drug use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 52 mins.