Cloud Atlas Screenshot (Photo : Warner Brothers)
Once upon a time in 1999, the Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowskis were being heralded as visionaries and revolutionaries of modern cinema. Fast forward 13 years and it is quite arguable that their reputation has been tarnished. Many will point to the much-maligned Speed Racer while others will simply point out how they ruined their own masterpiece The Matrix with two sub-par sequels. While I agree with the former, I certainly disagree with the criticism surrounding the latter Matrix sequels.
In teaming up with Run Lola Run helmer Tom Twyker, the Wachowskis may have actually topped themselves in many ways with their latest film Cloud Atlas, which is one of the most ambitious films of the past decade.
It is extremely difficult to define or explain the concept behind Cloud Atlas. The film showcases six different narratives spread across hundreds of years. [Spoiler Alert] The first story portrays an eighteenth century sea voyage. The second portrays an early 1900s drama between an aspiring musician and an aging composer as they team together to compose a great masterpiece. The third depicts a 1970s mystery drama revolving around oil and energy schemes. In the fourth story we are brought to present day England where an older gentleman's attempt to runaway from a client's criminal siblings lands him in an equally damning nursing home. The fourth story jumps ahead hundreds of years to a Matrix inspired future where females are enslaved as restaurant waitresses and are fed the idea that they are not pure blood humans (even though they really are). The final story takes place even further in the future after the fall of civilization, which blends a tribal past with a science fiction future. During the course of these six intertwining stories, the film blends together a diverse canvas of film genres, themes, characters, races, sexes, and actors in an attempt to showcase the interconnectedness of human experience and existence.
The Wachowskis direct the sea voyage and two futuristic stories while Twyker helms the three middle stories. The beauty of the film is how it is able to weave the differing stories and directing styles into a unified one that gives this film a strong sense of propulsion. The film does get off to a slow start however, as it is initially difficult to make sense of the individual stories. However, as the film develops not only do the stories slowly become evident and easy to follow, but their loose connections become ever more apparent. Some relationships in one story will find their fruition in another while some characters that played villainous roles in one story, will be on the other side of the spectrum in a subsequent or preceding one.
This is by no means a film that audiences will completely understand on an initial viewing. It is easy to get caught up in the interweaving of characters, actors, stories, and styles. The blending is so deep and complex that in some stories, the speech is also presented in a differing style. The film opens with a monologue from Tom Hanks' Zachry, which is set in the sixth story. His monologue and the entirety of the sixth story is spoken in a language more akin to old English than anything else. The opening montage, which pits together different segments of the six stories, is a bit confusing since the stories have not been individually established up to that point. A second viewing would certainly make more sense out of this opening segment.
The performances in the film are top notch and the variety of characters they play (including different sexes) really showcases the multi-faceted brilliance of each actor. Each of the main actors gets a major part in one story and a few cameos or minor roles in the other sequences. Tom Hanks plays a protagonist role in the sixth film as a tribal leader Zachry, but plays a mysterious doctor in the film's opening. He plays a minor role (a hilarious unkempt gangster) in the fourth story, but his part sets the entire story in action. He is most effective in the last story where he is given central stage and his chemistry with Halle Berry is palpable. Jim Broadbent gets to carry a few stories, but is at his best as Timothy Cavendish, an elder gentleman who must try to escape from a Nurse Ratchet-like Hugo Weaving in a nursing home. Broadbent gives the film its central comic and jovial touch and the lightness he imbues gives the overall heavy tone a strong sense of relief. Ben Wishaw also delivers a strong performance in the film's most dramatic story of the aspiring composer Robert Frobisher. Wachowski Actor of Choice Hugo Weaving turns in villainous roles throughout the stories and remains a dominant (and hilarious) presence throughout, especially as a woman. The rest of the major cast which includes Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, James D'Arcy, and Keith David all deliver solid performances that span different races and sexes.
Many could complain about some of the makeup which is not always effective at completely hiding the different actors in their different racial and sexual disguises, (Korean Doona Bae does not really look Hispanic as is intended by one story) but in some ways, I feel that the directors wanted the audiences to identify the actors in order to express their central ideas of interconnectedness between race and sex. More importantly, the makeup never really harms or diminishes the experience.
With so many diverse narratives, it is inevitable that some stories will feel more prevalent than others. In my opinion, the opening sea voyage story is among the most uninteresting until its final twist gives it the emotional weight that was lacking in its earlier portions. The futuristic stories are among the best as they add the greatest level of intrigue and have the strongest pacing. The Frobisher story (the composer one) is in many ways the emotional heart of the entire film as it delves into some of its deepest emotional and philosophical issues relating to existence and love.
From a technical standpoint, this film is flawless with awe-inspiring imagery from Cinematographers Frank Griebe and John Toll as well as an impressive score from Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tom Twyker. Editor Alexander Berner could very well be the star of the entire show as he blends the six stories in a neat package that maintains a steady and comprehensible pace.
All in all, Cloud Atlas is an experimental blockbuster. It has the polished production values and the thrills that define that particular brand of films, but its ambitious weaving of numerous plots, genres, and themes makes it more akin to The Tree of Life and its stream of consciousness structure than any other mainstream Hollywood film. The Tree of Life wound up being my favorite film of 2011, and while it is still early to determine a favorite film for 2012, Cloud Atlas is definitely somewhere on that list thanks to its sheer scope and ingenuity.