Cloud Atlas is the very definition of epic filmmaking. Combining big-name directors and actors, as well as juggling a half-dozen different stories from seperate eras of human history, the film’s scope is undeniably immense. As a result, the final product should not only be given its props for being an enjoyable movie, but also managing not to collapse under its own weight into a jumbled mess. This is an engaging piece of filmmaking, and while some may be apprehensive of its running time of nearly 3 hours, they will find that the film spends all that time wisely.
There is no one main plot or character that the movie revolves around. Chronologically, the stories start in the 1800s, with a gentleman (Jim Sturgess) returning home via ship and encountering a stowaway slave (David Gyasi). After that is the early 20th century, with a young musician (Ben Whishaw) struggling to find his place. After that is the 1970s, with a journalist (Halle Berry) getting swept into a dangerous chase after uncovering an energy company’s dark secrets. In the modern day, an elderly publisher (Jim Broadbent), through a series of mishaps, ends up tricked into living in a cruel nursing home against his will, and plots an escape with some of his fellow seniors. In 22nd century Korea, a subservient clone (Bae Doona) is swept into a revolution hoping to expose the cruelty her kind faces. Finally, in a far-off post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) encounters a visitor from a more advanced civilization (Halle Berry once again).
Each of these stories carry unique visual and thematic styles, tackling historical issues such as racism, still-relevent issues such as homosexuality, and the horrific possibilities of dystopian futures. What does carry over to each story is the actors used. You’ll spot the likes of Hanks, Berry, Broadbent, and others such as Keith David and Hugo Weaving multiple times as entirely different characters – some even with different ethnicities or genders. (If you ever somehow wondered what an Asian Hugo Weaving would look like, you’ll get your answer in the Korean segment.)
This will probably be distracting for some, but for me, it helped to gel the segments better together so that it didn’t feel like I was watching six completely unrelated movies. Certain characters do also carry over across segments, such as James D’Arcy appearing as the same character in both the 1930s and 1970s stories. Despite the unique traits each story has, I never felt like I was being jarred abruptly from one to the next as the focus continued to shift every 2 to 3 minutes.
Each story is well done to a level that all six of them could theoretically be their own movie if the writers were willing to flesh them out to a longer length. Giving each one about a half-hour works for the shorter stories they’re telling, though. Evn if a moviegoer ends up not liking the movie, I don’t think they’ll lose track of what’s going on, as the switches are frequent enough and the storytelling is clear enough for everything to make continuous sense to a mainstream audience.
I will say that if the movie has an underlying theme or message to it, it was probably lost on me. One characters’ final scene features them discussing the idea of death being nothing more than a tool into the next life, with other scenes dropping hints that these characters are continuously being reincarnated across time. And yet, despite these hints, the actual point of these stories being loosely connected never quite became clear to me. I think the fact that each one offers quality acting and direction, and are all constantly engaging, is the film’s main triumph. There may be a point to it all, but it will probably be lost on most audiences.
A minor nitpick comes in during the post-apocalpytic story featuring Hanks and Berry. Hanks’ character continually hallucinates a dirty green-skinned man in a top hat, who urges him to commit violent acts. Not only are a lot of this characters’ lines hard to understand, but the character’s very concept seems surreal in an out-of-place way. I get that it’s probably supposed to represent a section of his conscience or thought pattern, but the rest of the film, even when containing super-futuristic landscapes and technology, doesn’t try to get cerebral in this manner. It was out of place, and ended up making that segment probably my least favorite.
Cloud Atlas is easily one of the years’ most ambitious films, and I think it’s a gamble that pays off. Other reviews have been very mixed, and I can’t fault either side for feeling the way they do. In some ways, I think the movie is surprisingly accessible, while other aspects I feel will not be for everyone. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed it, and I have a feeling that it it could grow to have a large following as more people discover it over the years. If you are curious to see just what this movie is all about, I recommend you find out and come to your own conclusions. The film certainly seems to be made with that idea in mind.