Some movies are like real life – painfully realistic, often cynical or sad, these seek to portray a truth about the world we live in. Many of these are marvelous films – the best among them including Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, David Fincher’s The Social Network, and even social satire like Sidney Lumet’s Network. Some movies are like dreams – reveling in the wondrous and the breathtaking, the impossible and operatic, these often (though not always) seek to entertain and transport us. Great films in this category include Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Then we have films like Cloud Atlas, which seem to exist in a mysterious land in between. Here is a film so wondrous and ludicrous, and yet so precise and logical in its assertions.
The trance that envelops Cloud Atlas is largely due to the clout and passion of its directors, The Matrix masterminds Andy and Lana Wachowski, who’ve teemed up with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. They are presented with genres and comic caricatures, and yet they remain absolutely convinced of their themes. We realize this is all fantastical, even corny, and yet… it feels as though it makes perfect sense. Perhaps it is the sheer size and scope of the venture – here is a film that is majestic and self-assured, confident in its mission and its statement. There are flaws and wrong notes, yes, but complaining about them is a little like whining about coffee stains on five pages of a book with – seemingly – infinite pages.
If you’ve read any reviews or seen the trailers, you may be familiar with the six strands – the sextet, if we will – that compose Cloud Atlas‘s plot. The 1846 story finds Jim Sturgess as an ailing sailor whose doctor may or not be trying to poison and pilfer from him. The 1931 strand stars Ben Whishaw as a gay Cambridge amanuensis who has gone to work for an aging composer and write a masterful symphony called the Cloud Atlas Sextet. The 1974 plotline stars Halle Berry as an intrepid reporter who uncovers a web of deception and murder while investigating a new nuclear power plant. One story is set in the present, in which Jim Broadbent is a publicist who’s been accidentally trapped in a nursing home in order to evade detection by bounty hunters. 2144 finds Doona Bae starring as a “fabricant” waitress who unwittingly incites rebellion against the totalitarian government of Neo Seoul. The final strand stars headliner Tom Hanks as a post-apocalyptic village dweller who must guide an advanced “prescient” visitor to a temple atop a treacherous mountain.
Drama, romance, thriller, comedy, science fiction, action. The directors use these genres – and sometimes spoof them – and it works, because simply put, this is a movie about movies. A story about stories. These characters’ lives and failures and triumphs and births and deaths are moments, but they are footnotes in a larger tapestry that dictates the declines and advancements of a world, a people.
Consider the similarities between the six strands. Most will be able to pick up on the fact that each story’s protagonist is, in fact, one “soul” traveling throughout the strands of time. In each strand, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving appear as villains – Weaving often as a manifestation of censorship. Look too at the couples meeting again and again through the ages in each story – Sturgess and Bae, Whishaw and James D’Arcy, Berry and Hanks, Broadbent and Susan Sarandon, Bae and Sturgess, and, finally, Hanks and Berry. Sometimes there are also ancillary couples that appear bickering and unhappy, and there are often supporting characters that incite the protagonists to change. These do not always appear, and sometimes they do only fleetingly.
In each story the characters have preconceived notions about the nature of authority and society, are given startling evidence that give them great clarity, and eventually overcome and reshape their notions. Each of the protagonists overcome a specific social obstacle – race, sexuality, heritage, age, class, poverty – and eventually transcend the limits of their body and their circumstance. Many have noted Lana Wachowski’s transgender journey, and it certainly does provide an interesting layer to the film.
It should not come as a surprise that this is a visually inspired film. The links from shot to shot, even as they leap from story to story, are awesome to behold. At times we are given a Dickensian cliffhanger, and at times the directors tease us by surprising our own preconceived notions of how a given scene will play out. The makeup effects are astounding even when they’re not entirely convincing, and the visuals are simply beautiful. There’s no other word for it. At times, cinematography and special effects fuse to become one, and we are aware in the back of our heads that we’re watching something that’s bound to be classic. The shot where Jim Broadbent and his elderly friends crash through the nursing home gate. The episode in which Hanks and Berry visit a decaying temple filled with the bones of the old society. The speeder chase sequence across the Tron-like cityscape of Neo Seoul.
And what of the acting? Much has been made of the esteemed cast taking on multiple roles, and the boundaries of age and race they cross to take them on. The whiteface, blackface, and yellowface may not always be completely believable, but those who’ve seen the film know that it would be plain silly to call this racism. The idea is that race and gender are trivial and inconsequential. It’s slightly ironic that there’s an enormous hubbub arguing that they are not. Regardless, some acting choices are questionable. Broad, comic caricatures are common. But there are myriad memorable ones sprinkled in – Broadbent and Whishaw shine in every role, and James D’Arcy is magnificent as a Neo Seoul interrogator. But the real star of this film is not listed atop the poster. It is not Andy or Lana Wachowski or Tom Tykwer. It’s earth, or rebellion, or faith, or love, or happiness, or you, or me. It may be whatever you want it to be. It may be a complete and total mystery. And that’s pretty spectacular.
FINAL SAY: Cloud Atlas is a visionary and epic film that should be applauded for size and scope. Minor trifles from moment to moment are swallowed by the pure, mouth-agape ecstasy of this truly cinematic experience.