Cloud Atlas Review

“Our lives and our choices, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction. Yesterday my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Fear, belief, love, phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue long after we perish. Yesterday, I believe I would have never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible?”   -Dr. Henry Goose

The Wachowskis have built a career on highly ambitious films such as The Matrix and V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas looks to be their biggest undertaking yet as they partner with director Tom Tykwer to tell a story that cover six storylines taking place over thousands of years and working with an ensemble cast filled with more than twelve cast members. Suddenly the task in front of the three writers seems far bigger in scope than any movie in the last quarter of a century at the least. Can this trio of writers/directors manage to pull off such a feat or is Cloud Atlas just a pretentious train wreck created by film makers who are in over their heads?

The story of Cloud Atlas redefines epic as it covers the lives of more than fifty characters through six storylines that take place in six different time periods. The six storylines include the story of a man sailing from pacific islands back to San Francisco in 1850, a young musician trying to piggy back off of another’s name and fortune to hit it big in the early twentieth century, a journalist investigating a corporate cover-up in the 1970s, a publisher who gets in too deep with the mafia in 2012, a woman trying to escape her enslavement in a futuristic Korea, and a man working with a woman to send a message to somewhere beyond the stars in a wasted post-apocalyptic world.

Each of these story lines has parallels and connections, but for the most part each of them is telling their own story separate from the others. What is most interesting about the story lines is how they are weaved in and out of each other. The movie spends the first hour or so (this movie hits the three hour mark) going through each story chronologically and sets them up. After the initial set up each of these story lines change back and forth not based on chronological order, but based on plot development. This certainly makes for an interesting and engaging experience as each of these story lines helps each other to paint the much grander picture this film is creating.

The story in this movie plays like an orchestra with each story being its own part, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, but it is not the individual stories on their own that makes this story something great, it is the use of all of these stories in harmony with each other to create a grand story that is much greater and more beautiful. The grand picture in this film is more or less a meta-narrative about humanity that includes themes and ideas about humanity as a whole, but also touches on the ideas of God and a greater hope that we as humans are always seeking. The Wachowskis are definitely not foreign to the ideas that are weaved into this movie, but they manage to bring many of these ideas down to a level that most people can understand. Despite a couple of the stories that seemed a bit clunky and one that seems more than a little out of place, writers/directors the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer actually manage to bring all of these stories together in a way that works beautifully.

Cloud Atlas’s narrative style is not the only thing that is ambitious as the movie uses the same core cast to play essentially every major (and even some minor) character in the movie. The star studded cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Keith David, Doona Bae, and Susan Sarandon. Many of these actors play leads in one of the stories and every one of them pops up more than once playing characters completely different than the one before. It is really interesting to track how some of these characters evolve over multiple lifetimes. Tom Hanks is a great example of how his character changes lifetime to lifetime with each of them becoming less and less corrupt until he is actually the protagonist in the final story line. It was a risky idea, but I would say that it more or less pays off as most of these actors really flex their proverbial acting muscles by  successfully portraying characters that are very different from one another. Many of the characters in the film are a bit caricatured with little depth ever given to their characters. This movie is obviously going for scope so development of the individual characters was not a priority which while understandable is a little sad because some of these characters were interesting and seemed like they had a lot to offer. This story is huge and has out of this world ambition, but it still manages to bring its philosophical and metaphysical ideas down to a practical level that everyone can understand through these characters.

The creative team of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer succeeds on all of the fundamental levels such as the execution of the story and the writing of the characters. They even manage to deliver an incredibly moving score (composed by Tykwer himself) that feels like a character in the film on its own. Their direction is incredible because they are able to pull this leviathan of a movie off in the first place, but unfortunately it is the details that harm the movie. One notable flaw that took me out of the experience several times was the hit or miss use of make-up effects. At times this make-up was incredible and even Oscar worthy, but the decision was made to have actors play characters who were of a different race or ethnicity. The make-up jobs in these situations range from bad to laughable. This is most notable on the white people who were playing Koreans where some of the make-up work is passable while other examples completely take you out of the experience. They have African Americans playing Caucasians and Asians, Asians playing Caucasians, and Caucasians playing any race in the movie and it just does not look good all around.  Aside from this bad call on the director’s part I think their vision is beautiful and clearly articulated in the movie.

Overall Cloud Atlas is a movie that is able to pull six storylines together and make them play off each other in a way that actually reveals a greater story about mankind. The writers/directors manage to successfully bring all of these elements to make something so huge and seemingly ridiculous work on a level that most people will be able to follow. One thing that may be an issue with many viewers is the message that this film is sending. The movie clearly has some ideas it wants the audience to understand and whether or not a viewer will like the movie as a whole may sink or swim on whether or not they like the ideas that this movie is expressing. In the end Cloud Atlas is a momentous experiment that manages to succeed and do something unlike anything we have seen before on the big screen. This accomplishment alone is worth the price of admission.

Story: 10

Cloud Atlas brings six different stories together to create a much larger meta-narrative about human connection and our place in the world. On their own some of these stories are not excellent, but much like a single instrument in an orchestra, the single part becomes more beautiful in the context of the full picture. The way this story was told was certainly something that had to be a massive challenge and this movie manages to succeed in doing some things with its method of storytelling that have never been done before. 

Characters/Acting: 8.5

This film uses its large and talented ensemble cast in some very creative ways that give even more depth to the ideas the writers/directors  are trying to articulate in the movie. Most of the cast plays a lead role at some point and all of them are used in at least three story lines. These actors get some very diversified material that really shows off the various roles this cast can pull off. There are a few missteps here and there and sadly some characters get more screen time than they should while others do not get enough. While the character work here is not anything groundbreaking, it does manage to give the audience a way to connect to some of the larger than life ideas being presented in the movie.

Direction: 9.0

The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer do an excellent job at landing this giant story using this very ambitious method of weaving six stories together. It was a huge risk that luckily pays off in spades. While the trio manages to hit all the major notes, there are some poor decisions that have been made in terms of make-up with mixed results that are at times jarring. The big picture looks beautiful, but when you get in close on some of the smaller details the flaws still stick out.

Overall Effectiveness of the Movie: 9.0

This movie does some incredibly daring things that I have never seen done before in a movie, and it manages to work at charting this new territory. Things never get boring, the ideas are clear and demonstrated throughout the film, and aside from some minor hiccups this epic movie manages to hit its target. Kudos 

Overall Score: 9.0

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