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Cloud Atlas is a movie that comes along infrequently, a product of the commercial Hollywood system but done with a definite art house style approach to its creation. Clocking in at nearly three hours long, this ambitious movie tries to tell multiple stories that weave across a tapestry of five hundred years of human history, from the 19th century to the 24th. Throughout all of the eras the same ensemble of actors return to play different characters in the different time periods, sometimes swapping roles between hero and villain, black or white or Asian, and even male or female. It has stories spanning different genres, and flexes its narrative between science fiction to mystery-thriller to historical period drama.
I loved it.
I don’t think that this will be a movie that all people will get, and that’s alright with me. Then again, Inception turned out to be a wildly commercial success of a film and that was long, cerebral and different from the public’s usual expectation of science fiction. Cloud Atlas is a little like Inception, in that it shares a lengthier running time and requires you to focus on its story. However, unlike Inception, Cloud Atlas comes across as a little easier to sit back and ride along with its timejumping scenes. In part I believe that’s due to the previous experience of the Wachowskis (formerly brothers, now sister and brother siblings) and their time spent in such action sci-fi worlds as The Matrix films and Speed Racer.
If you can accept the film within its first 15 minutes on its terms then I think Cloud Atlas will reward you. The narrative of the six storytelling time periods are set up within those opening moments, and even the dialog spoken by the character played by Jim Broadbent in 2012 spells what the Wachowskis and co-director/writer Tom Tykwer are attempting to sell you. I found that once the introduction of the six separate time eras were done, I never once had a pang of disappointment when the movie leapt into the future or back into the past. Each of the worlds, and the stories going on in them, are individually interesting to spend time in.
The performances given by the core troupe of actors consisting of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bai, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, James D’arcy and Hugh Grant, are richly delivered. After seeing how bad this kind of experimentation can go in other movies, I had my reservations about how well any actor can pull off multiple characters that are of different ethnicities, much less of different sexes. Sometimes the limitations of makeup can pull you right out of watching the film, while other times it’s the limitations of the actor themselves who break the illusion. But with Cloud Atlas, I was surprised at how well the concept was executed, both in terms of the portrayals and the makeup effects.
Even in an abundance of strong performances, in particular I felt that Tom Hanks and Doona Bai have truly exceptional roles in Cloud Atlas. Hanks can bring us great performances and I hope that he’s genuinely considered for his work here when awards season begins. Bai, a Korean model turned actress, shines bright in her major character, a genetically created server in a dystopic futuristic Seoul. I’d love to see her get more work in western movies, and perhaps Cloud Atlas will be her Girl With a Dragon Tattoo breakthrough moment. Hugo Weaving proves once again that he's one of the best actors working today that can play bad guys, and when he's on-screen with Hanks as the Old Georgie devil character, you'll see why. And even though he doesn’t have as much screen time as the others, with little dialogue and often nearly unrecognizable under heavy makeup, Hugh Grant is able to play a spectrum of villain types ranging from menacing to comedically irritable. I’d be willing to wager that there’s a supporting actor Oscar nomination coming his way next February.
In the futuristic eras there’s a definite Matrix visual quality and feel at play, especially in the Neo Seoul future setting. Those same dark feelings I had when first exposed to the dank and bleak hovercraft of Morpheus, or the cold feeling of dread I got from watching the machines pluck human fetuses like crops at harvest surface are there when you start to understand what the plight of Sonmi-451 is. It’s good to know that the Wachowskis were able to get back to that same originality we loved from them with The Matrix, but at the same time, doing it in a different way. Right now I feel very safe to say that Cloud Atlas is their best film after The Matrix.
I don’t feel overwhelmed by my initial experience with Cloud Atlas, nor do I feel that the deeper philosophical issues that the Wachowskis and Tykwer expressed failed to make an emotional impact on me as a viewer in sacrifice for moments of action. Each of the six stories build to their own climaxes in tandem with the movie’s overall arc, and as such Cloud Atlas doesn’t make the mistake of becoming too experimental or too cerebral. Really, the fact that this film is able to work as successfully as it does is a testament to its makers and performers, and I very much get the sense that they had to go out on a limb here and just believe that it would work. I’m very glad that everyone involved was able to pull it off, and I hope that Cloud Atlas can go on to make an impressionable impact amongst the Hollywood community as well as find a large enough audience that will embrace it for being its own kind of unique. Go see it and give Cloud Atlas a chance to work itself on you.