Cloud Atlas is big, bold, kind of a mess and equally full of stunning beauty. An adaptation of the acclaimed David Mitchell novel, Cloud Atlas comes courtesy of a creative collaboration between Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). The three worked together on the book’s sprawling, six-point narrative, deciding to join the various plots and centuries apart timelines into one nearly three-hour long montage.
To say it won’t be for everyone is an understatement. The same goes for the opposite. Few movies achieve so much and occasionally fall so flat. This drastic batting average prominently stems from the film’s earnestness.
Cloud Atlas is about, above all things, man’s inhumanity to there fellow man, primarily those that are different. That difference can be based on gender, race, sexual orientation or even molecular creation; there are clones afterall. In order of historical occurrence, the movie tells the story of a young man (Jim Sturgess) abroad confronting slavery, a man (Ben Whishaw) seeking to be a composer in 1930s England, a female reporter (Halle Berry) looking to uncover the truth behind a suspicious nuclear power planet during the 1970s, an elderly man (Jim Broadbent) in modern times on the run from Irish mobsters, a female clone (Doona Bae) learning to rebel against the system in a futuristic “Neo Seoul” and finally atale that occurs “After the Fall” where a tribesman (Tom Hanks) frets over the safety of his family on a remote island.
That’s a lot of plates to spin. The Wachowskis and Tykwer mostly keep them from falling. All six threads are compelling, though some distinctly more than others. Those that play up the simplicity of the given parable resonate stronger. Even if the Cloud’s themes are clunkily stated verbatim time and again, the actual execution of the better ones are worthy of a few tears.
The 1930s plot with Whishaw is a favorite. Aided by the film’s finest performance, Whishaw’s story lacks the wow-inducing scenery crafted elsewhere, but focuses far more on the character. Whishaw’s Robert Frobisher is a delicate soul, easily lost in his own whimsy and ego; a young man positive that he knows more than those far older than him. Without the sharp twists and adrenaline of the other five chunks of Cloud Atlas, this element gets to be the rock of the picture. It has a calming elegance that manages to shed a soft light on the more tender ideas elsewhere.
One can only imagine the hellish nightmare it must have been editing Cloud Atlas. That only the 70s mystery angle feels like the tedious one is astonishing, and even that tale starts strongly.
Perhaps the most discussed thing about the movie, at least for those that haven’t seen it, is the choice to feature an array of actors playing various parts in each time period. Thus, we witness Tom Hanks as a bullish English bloke and a conniving and a big-toothed treasure hunter, amongst other things. Some of these work, with Broadbent’s ability to swing from mugging to subtle as the finest example. For Hanks, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant, it distracts instead of invites, with overbearing or embarrassing accents badly sticking out.
The issues of fate and reincarnation aren’t deftly stated by the Wachowski and Tywker, and for many audiences it will be new-age mumbo jumbo. That gut feeling is a fair one, for the movie intrigues on a lyrical, very base level. When Cloud Atlas connects, whether it’s via the pulsating futuristic action or goofy comedy of today, the nagging weaknesses slip out of mind. A film doesn’t have to be great to be a must-see, and this is a perfect example.
Cloud Atlas opens wide in Seattle this Friday, October 26.