I cannot possibly put together the plot of Cloud Atlas in any reasonable format in a few paragraphs, so I’m going to skip over the usual ‘this is what the movie’s about, these are the main characters’ stuff and just leap right into the film itself. There is a reason Cloud Atlas was described as unfilmable, and why directors the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer had to work so hard to get the financing, cast, and crew needed to get the film off the ground. It stretches across decades, from the trans-Pacific voyage of a merchant to a post-apocalyptic island wasteland in which savages struggle for survival against the twin forces of nature and one another, all the while making a grand point about human nature in the process.
Across time, tenuous threads connect disparate lovers. Those threads? Stories, of course. The shipboard tales of Andy Ewing (Jim Sturgess) inspire the music of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) the music of Frobisher extends through his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) to the modern day and intrepid journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), and so on through Neo Seoul and the empowered replicant Sonmi 451 (Doona Bae) and the savage remains of humanity in the form of half-feral goat farmer Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his family of tribesmen. These expressions of the human condition unite us all, and everything we feel and do has been felt and done by generations immemorial.
Cloud Atlas is a visually stunning work of art. The movie’s multiple settings are all wonderfully rendered, and each is instantly recognizable after only a few frames. You can tell the Wachowskis are involved at several points, particularly in the special effects-heavy Neo Seoul. It’s very stylish and they build an effective, interesting world. In fact, all of the movie’s settings feel epic, and are shot accordingly. Even 70s era San Francisco feels epic, in spite of the grime. This is an absolutely gorgeous movie.
Perhaps more impressive than even the scenery is the makeup. Using the same cast members for a multitude of roles is always a dicey proposition, but the makeup is what sells it. Unlike the old-age makeup in, say, J. Edgar, the makeup in Cloud Atlas is staggeringly well executed. Characters cross ages, genders, races, and technological barriers with ease and look brilliant in the process. Tom Hanks in one storyline looks completely different than Tom Hanks in a different storyline, and the same can be said for all the other actors in the film. If this movie doesn’t win multiple technical Oscars, I will be greatly surprised.
The acting choices are also skillful. This is an all-star cast in every sense of the word. While some choices, and some of Tom Hanks’ accents, don’t work, that’s to be expected when you play six different roles in a movie, alternating three or four of them within a week of shooting. Hugo Weaving plays a great devil in Old Georgie, Hugh Grant plays an excellent sleazy businessman, Hanks is never not good, and James D’Arcy has what might be the toughest role in playing the young and old versions of Rufus Sixsmith. Still, in a cast full of brilliant performers and performances, the real stand-out is Doona Bae, who ties the whole thing together as the replicant Soonmi 451. She’s the face of this film, and she provides the performance that drives the movie’s ultimate point home.
While Cloud Atlas is an impressive achievement in film making, and a surprisingly effective adaptation of that which is not able to be adapted, it’s not a perfect picture by any means. For the first 30 minutes or so, I had a great deal of difficulty keeping track of what was going on in the various storylines. Even after the first hour or two, I had to wonder what exactly the point of the film was. While it all ties together beautifully at the end, it can be a difficult journey to undertake. It’s wonderful, and the weaker segments are easily supported by the superior segments (the literary agent, Neo Seoul). I have no doubt that the Wachowskis and Tykwer saved as much as they could from David Mitchell’s novel.
Cloud Atlas is, nonetheless, nearly three hours long, and I’m not sure if there’s any way things could have been cut from the movie without ruining it. Indeed, if anything, an extended cut on the video release might be a positive in fleshing the film out more fully; a chronological cut would also be nice, if only to make it easier to keep up with. I feel that Cloud Atlas may be a film that warrants further viewing upon its home video release, if only because there’s so much detail that smaller things had to have been missed on the big screen.
However, for all its flaws, Cloud Atlas is still a brave attempt and a successful adaptation of the impossible novel. It’s long, and it can be difficult, but it’s worthwhile. The acting is brilliant, the team of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer acquit themselves very well, and the editing is deft. It should not be nearly as successful as it is, and that’s a credit to the drive and desire of the filmmakers. If you have the nearly three hours to spare, give Cloud Atlas a chance. It may never make complete sense if you try to connect the parts together, but what about life makes sense? It’s an experience. Enjoy it.