Right up front, you are going to have to see Cloud Atlas twice or maybe even 3 or 4 times – so if you are not willing or able to make that kind of commitment to a film, I suggest you turn away now. But if you are still there, you’ve made an excellent choice and I’ll do my level best to explain what you have gotten yourself into – if that is humanly possible.
This film is intentionally puzzling and requires a large portion of patience to be fully appreciated, but for those who embrace this movie’s complexity and make an effort to understand and appreciate its intricacies and eccentricities, you will be richly rewarded; and long after you’ve left the theater you’ll still be thinking about and talking about Cloud Atlas.
There is nothing short of reading the David Mitchell novel of Cloud Atlas that can prepare you for the shock and awe of watching this movie (and that may not even help you.) I did not have the good fortune to read the award-winning book before seeing the film, so all that I knew going into my first viewing of the movie was that it involved reincarnation and the rippling effect of one’s actions over time; and that it had a complicated narrative that skips back & forth between several different stories. But even with this foreknowledge I was not ready for the bewildering fashion in which this story unfolds.
Cloud Atlas is a completely unique film with enormous scope that cannot even begin to be compared to other mind-numbing cerebral cinema fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountain, but that is about as close as you’ll come to finding another movie that is similar in terms of epic mystery and mystique. If you liked those other films for their thought-provoking symbolism and unanswered questions – then you are probably going to love Cloud Atlas.
This film is one of the most ambitious and ambiguous movies ever made and I’m certain it will spur excited discussions among philosophy & film fans, students and scholars for generations to come. Cloud Atlas covers almost 500 years of human history, from 1849 to the post-apocalyptic 2300s, and takes place on four continents. It encompasses 6 stories with a multitude of souls who appear as different incarnations in each different tale, linked together by the deeds of their past lives and also interconnected by artistic works of one sort or another.
The interlaced stories of Cloud Atlas include the relationship between an escaped slave and an ailing attorney onboard a sailing ship in the South Pacific; a young musician helping an aging composer create a musical masterpiece; a reporter uncovering the evil machinations of an energy company; a publisher on the run from gangsters; a cloned service worker who escapes her subjugation; and a post-apocalyptic tribesman who faces the devil while trying to help a woman from a more enlightened and educated race to save humanity. Discovering how and why each of these tales fit together is one of the most engaging and fascinating movie experiences you are likely to ever have.
My personal favorite story within this film, and the part that has stuck with me the most, is the way in which a cloned servant girl finds her soul and her voice, and becomes the spark of a revolution that changes the world. As a sci-fi fan I thought I was fairly well versed with clone culture, but I honestly never thought much about the soul that would inhabit a cloned creature. Korean actress Doona Bae is amazing as Sonmi-451 and her story set in the futuristic world of 2144’s Neo Soul could easily make for an incredible sci-fi movie in its own right.
So what exactly is this film about? To answer that question is like explaining the meaning of life. Cloud Atlas covers themes ranging from the meaning of freedom to the possibilities of reincarnation and the life of the soul. It addresses the way in which religions are formed and it is an epic battle of good over evil and love over hate, and shows how the weak can triumph over the strong. The central theme is the ripple effect that our insignificant actions can have on the world and I think that everyone who sees this incredible film is likely to walk away with something different after each viewing.
As if the entire narrative structure of this film were not enough to confound even the most astute film fanatic, for the 2321 post-apocalypse-future sections of this film the characters speak in a pidgin language that in nearly indecipherable. If you listen closely you can pick up enough to discern what is being said (I think), but I only really grasped the rhythms of this lingo after the second viewing. If you remember the wacky language used by the lost kids in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, that primitive cave-speak is similar to the jargon used in the 2321 section of this film. It adds realism, but it certainly doesn’t make things any easier on the audience.
Cloud Atlas is one of the few films in history to be co-directed by three different people and I can’t think of a much better trio take on the task than the Wachowski siblings, who fried our brains once before with The Matrix Trilogy, and Tom Tykwer, who directed Run Lola Run, a film that provided him with great experience in coordinating many alternative timelines. These three cinematic magicians have accomplished a nearly impossible feat in piecing together this instant classic.
The acting talent in Cloud Atlas, that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant, is superb – and each primary character plays multiple roles across the film’s universe. Each time you see the actor in different make-up in a different story section, keep in mind that this is the reincarnation of that person’s soul and not just a fun gimmick; although it is quite entertaining to see the variations and some of them are very well hidden. [Be sure to stay through the initial credits run to see each actor in each of his different roles – there will be a few surprises.]
Now if you are still with me, I know that this film sounds like it is going to be a chore to sit through, and at nearly three hours running time, you’re right in that it is going to take some focus and determination. I’m also quite serious in that you will probably need to see this movie more than once before you can begin to accurately wrap your mind around it and fully enjoy the experience – but I think you’ll find it well worth the effort. Grade: 9/10