Dense, ambitious and unavoidably grandiose, Cloud Atlas
is a philosophical think piece that hinges on unprecedented storytelling and a dizzyingly proficient technical execution. Some movies play as throwaway paperbacks. Cloud Atlas
is Encyclopedia Britannica, volumes A through M. At times, its laborious to track the comings and goings of the six interlocking stories weaved throughout Atlas
. But codirectors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski shine enough light on the dominant human themes in author David Mitchell’s tome to make the film worthy of its the lengthy ride.
Have you ever experienced déjà vu? Or heard an original piece of music that you swear you’ve listened to once before? Have you ever met a total stranger and felt an instant kinship, as if you’ve been friends for an eternity?
Cloud Atlas believes there is a reason for this, and spreads its message of cosmic symmetry out over six vastly different storylines. The core performers snake through each plot like a band of eager day players, transporting us as far back as the Pacific Islands in 1849 and as far forward as Neo Seoul circa 2144. And the versatile cast – which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Hugo Weaving and many more -- are game to slip into several skins. Men play women. Women play men. African-Americans play Caucasians. A dog plays himself, then gets shot for his troubles.
The stories are connected by universal themes rather than direct plot points. Characters placed in difficult situations find the courage to stand up for the oppressed. Past-life experiences speak to present-day characters in their dreams. Karma and destiny are explored. Tykwer and the Wachowskis illustrate how our lives have the potential to turn on a dime, and show how we’re often faced with difficult choices at pivotal moments, and the decisions we make have long-lasting ramifications. Often, this is pop psychology, some of which was covered in greater detail in the Wachowski’s own Matrix trilogy. (There’s a reason they have the velvet-voiced Weaving state, “There’s a natural order to this world, and one that must be protected.” I expected him to throw in a “Mr. Anderson” at the end of the prescient statement.)
Cloud Atlas is a true ensemble piece, with the cast largely supporting the visual wizardry. The film looks fantastic no matter the time period. Perhaps because of the Wachowskis' influence, the most visually stimulating period happens to be one we’ve yet to see: Seoul in 2144. The sci-fi subplot makes the least sense in the grand scheme, but like the makeup used to age and alter each actor, it’s never anything less than impressive.
Ultimately, of course, Cloud Atlas strives to be about love, as well as loss. Lana Wachowski, speaking before our TIFF ’12 screening, fairly described it as “quite an experimental film… about human courage.” And while it’s easy to admire the film’s massive scope – and the adroit method in which the film is presented – it’s hard not to notice that, for all its big ideas, the film’s more intimate and small than you might expect.
If there’s a quibble about Cloud, it’s that very little hangs in the balance from story to story. The consequences of the missions can be perceived as small-scale when contemplating the large-scale puzzle, and if one (or many) of the subplots were to fail, life as we know it would go on. Four seniors would be trapped in a tyrannical nursing home, and a journalist would lose her life in an effort to expose a corporate deception. But to what end? It’s kind of the movie’s point that the connections binding us would remain. The problems of these few in the film can only create small ripples in the vast ocean that is existence. But fear not, for life, as the movie reminds us, “extends far beyond the limitations of me.”