Weaving together six storylines that take place over the span of five hundred years, “Cloud Atlas” is easily the biggest movie made in a very long time, insanely ambitious in terms of scope and quantity of information, and dependent on the viewer actually paying attention and putting together some of the pieces, making for a very packed picture. If the plots and characters were vacation clothes and the movie itself was a piece of luggage, this would be like one of those comically overstuffed suitcases, the type you’d have to sit on in order to get the zipper all the way around, and it looks like it is ready to burst at any moment into a huge unmanageable mess, but in the end it all stays together, the contents stay inside, and it all somehow just works.
The movie starts with a breathless assault of character and timeline introductions, a quick two minutes that shows us the very beginning of six different stories, all of them with their own plotlines but all also connected through themes and occasionally through actual characters, and this pretty much sets the pace for the next 170 or so minutes, as the movie jumps effortlessly between the six storylines, telling them all in linear fashion, just jumbled up together. So we get six story introductions, and then six first acts, six second acts, and so on, blended together so that all of the rising actions correlate. It’s actually quite thrilling, as this means a huge chunk of the movie consists of scenes that constantly end in cliffhangers, so that no matter which storyline is being jumped to, there is a big piece of information to be revealed and which propels that story even further, which helps to propel the other stories.
This goes on all the way until the movie gets to the six different denouements, weaved together in a very satisfying way, giving us six different emotional endings and climaxes that blend together as a singular emotional whole, simultaneously happy and sad and joyous and contemplative and hopeful, and reflection of spectrum that is experienced by everyone in day to day life, no matter their time period or placement in the world, and of course, that is very much the point, isn’t it?
“Cloud Atlas” is all about interconnection, the blanket theory, everyone in the world is one and the same, and transcendence of boundaries is what’s necessary to evolve and move forward as a species. Each of the six stories in “Cloud Atlas,” just like most stories in most movies and television shows and like most stories in the real world and in the news, are based on people from different backgrounds and with different beliefs being at odds with each other due to the structures already in place in which they exist. Whether it be people owning slaves in the 1800s or humans mass producing and then abusing sentient robot workers in the 22nd century or cannibals ransacking villages 100 years “after the Fall,” mankind seems to be destined to allow itself to be divided into smaller groups and territories, fighting against each other instead of working together. And until it’s all for one and one for all, it’s just going to be a bunch of disparate voices and hopes and ideals clashing against each other and bringing each other down.
In telling these six stories together in one movie, and as one story in which the main character is humanity itself, this allowed for a grand mash up of genres and conventions. “Cloud Atlas” often jumps from genre to genre, as a scene of sci-fi action might be followed by a scene set on a ship in the Pacific Ocean in the 1800s, before jumping to a bar fight in 2012 England, and so on throughout the movie, but while this may sound like it could be confusing and disorienting, it’s surprisingly not. This movie has romance, comedy, tragedy, action, a touch of horror, it has political ideas, contemporary ideas, universal ideas, it is a blending of all of these things together, and carefully assembled so that one element does not undercut the next, a tricky tightrope walk of tone for sure.
Perhaps the most aesthetically interesting choice in the making of this movie was to have the same group of actors portraying characters in all of the storylines. So Tom Hanks plays six different characters, and one of these characters he actually plays as a young man and as an old man, and Halle Berry plays six different characters, including a white Jewish woman in 1930s Europe and a Korean male doctor in Neo Seoul in the 2100s, and this is done because this movie is all about hammering home the idea of connectivity and oneness, as the actors inhabit different characters through time in the same way a soul might travel from life to life, changing with each experience.
Truth be told, a second viewing was required to really let everything sink in fully and make total sense. The first go round was a bit of an assault of information, and while it left me feeling like I may have just seen something great, it definitely left me with questions, wondering about what I had seen. Some time to ruminate on the film followed by a second viewing was something a revelation, as the overall picture, which was once a little fuzzy, snapped into crystal clear focus. “Cloud Atlas” is definitely a movie that greatly benefits from repeat viewings, as an increased familiarity with the different stories and characters as well as the methodology of presenting these stories allows for more connections to be made, more puzzle pieces to fall into place.
It actually seems a bit foolhardy and thick headed to come to some sort of definitive conclusion about this piece of art after one only one viewing, as it pretty much demands a second viewing to really get the full flavor of what’s going on. After all, this movie is quite different from pretty much every other movie or television show out there, which is the main reason why it was so difficult for financing to be secured for this film, and without anything to compare it to, how can it be so easily weighed without any frame of reference? It needs to be digested and reflected upon and revisted, and surely a third and a fourth viewing would reveal even more missed details and ideas. What could be better than art that is rewarding each time one visits it?
Not to say that this movie doesn’t have its flaws. Of course, what movie is free of flaws? While the reasoning behind casting the same actors in different roles of varying races and genders makes perfect sense in the context of the movie and what is being said, it still looks weird to see Hugo Weaving made up to look like an Asian man, or Ben Whishaw as an older woman. In fact, while some of the make up effects are actually pretty astounding and sometimes hides an actor completely, there are other times when it is obvious we are watching someone under quite a bit of facial prosthesis. Hugh Grant’s characters are a great example of this dichotomy, as he played a few characters that were merely aged up a little or he was given a fake nose and a little make up, and it looked very convincing. And there there’s the storyline in which he plays an older gentleman and it looks like he has a rubber face completely paralyzed from Bell’s Palsy (actually, he was under so much make up it’s impossible to tell it’s even Hugh Grant, but it was still obvious it was a person with make up), and there’s the Asian character he plays, which again, just looks strange. So thematically this choice made perfect sense, but it does lead some strange looking characters here and there (like when they make Hugo Weaving look like a cat-lady a la Stephen King’s “Sleepwalkers”).
But in the end it really is a beautiful movie, with a “love one another” central message that is hard to root against, let ye be a gigantic asshole, and while it is sure to have it detractors, it is also way too big and too earnest to ignore. “Cloud Atlas” may not go on to change the world, but it definitely seems like they tried, and that’s more than enough in this instance to warrant recognition and respect.
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