“Extend your patience for just a moment,” we’re told early on in Cloud Atlas, the new film from the folks who made The Matrix trilogy and Run Lola Run. “There is a method to the madness of this tale.”
Well, if that doesn’t clue you in right away that you’re about to see some gonzo filmmaking that won’t always make sense, then maybe you’d be better off seeing a different movie.
Over the course of nearly three hours (which, in my book, is not really a “moment”), co-writers/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Twyker take audiences on an exhilarating journey of space and time, all to prove the point that we’re all connected. The film is based on a book by David Mitchell that many have called unadaptable, and if the big-screen version sometimes proves that point, it’s still an entertaining technical achievement.
Cloud Atlas tells multiple stories that take place in different places and times: In 1849, aboard a ship in the Pacific, a gravely-ill young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) is tended to by a sketchy doctor (Tom Hanks), and watched over by a stowaway; in 1936, in England, a musician (Ben Whishaw) is involved in an uneasy collaboration with an older composer (Jim Broadbent); in 1973, in San Francisco, a reporter (Halle Berry) is investigating corruption at a nuclear power plant; in 2012, in London, a bumbling book publisher (Broadbent again) is trapped in a retirement home by his brother (Hugh Grant); in 2144, in “Neo Seoul,” a waitress-clone (Doona Bae) escapes from her job and joins the rebellion; and in some unspecified time beyond that (“100 years after the fall”), a mystic (Hanks again) teams with a beautiful warrior visitor (Berry again) on her dangerous mission.
The stories aren’t told in chronological order. Rather, we bounce between them at a rapid pace like a pinball, marveling time and again at the parallels.
Subtle it’s not: The connectedness theme is illustrated in each vignette by a protagonist who stands up to or fights against a controlling figure, showing the struggle to be free is one we will always face. Some characters in each story have a shooting-star birthmark. And we’re told multiple times that we are all but a drop in the ocean of life, or “our lives are not our own,” or “death opens another door.”
Most significant to the theme is that the same actors play roles in each vignette — sometimes roles that mix up genders, race, age, and skin color. It’s a total stunt that’s made possible with the help of some talented makeup artists, but it works as a way to illustrate that part of us carries on from one generation to the next.
The Wachowskis and Twyker are visual masters, and each of the film’s six segments has its own unique look, feel, and tone. One second we’ll be in a comedy laughing at a bunch of British oldsters trying to escape from a retirement home, the next we’ll be dangling high above the city in a high-tech futuristic sci-fi epic, and the next we’ll be in a topical political thriller. Kudos to the editing team for somehow making it all fit together.
Watching Hanks, Berry, Grant, et al in such against-type roles can be a real trip. For example, it’s really fun to see Hanks playing a darker-skinned Cockney mobster so unhappy with a book review that he throws the critic over a balcony. (The book’s title, by the way? Knuckle Sandwich. Ha!) Likewise, seeing Grant as a ruthless cannibal warrior is scary for the right reasons.
But gimmicks and technical wizardry aside, Cloud Atlas is ultimately a bit of a confounding exercise. The filmmakers’ heavy-handed desire to make their point causes the thing to be a bit overstuffed and exhausting — maybe because they’re trying so hard to respect Mitchell’s original vision. It’s almost as if they threw everything they had at the screen; the result is sometimes a confusing intergenerational gumbo.
Nevertheless, I respect the ambition of Cloud Atlas, and I did actually enjoy most of it. So I’m going to give the film a B.
Have you seen Cloud Atlas? What did you think of it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.