Well, this is going to be polarizing.
You know how people are always complaining about how Hollywood is creatively bankrupt and too reliant on remakes? I’m curious to see how those people will react to Cloud Atlas, the most wildly ambitious, big-budget movie since Fight Club.
I liked it a lot, but I could easily see how many people will find it off-putting.
I haven’t read the novel it’s based on, so others will have to comment as to the movie’s veracity to the source material. What we wind up with is a picture that’s sort of like a more cosmic version of Paul Thomas Anderson’s coincidence extravaganza, Magnolia, with sci-fi elements of Blade Runner thrown in, as well. Cloud Atlas consists of six separate stories that take place in different eras and locations. The stories share thematic links, plot elements, and actors. Even whole characters appear from one story to the next. For instance, Tom Hanks is in the film, and I think he played at least six different characters. Everybody plays multiple roles that cross over gender and ethnic lines. This is one element that’s likely going to be problematic for a lot of people — the make-up is mostly great. There’s no awful Leo J. Edgar work here at all. But, the Caucasian actors sometimes play Asian characters and vice versa, and that makeup varies in its convincingness.
I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but here’s a really quick synopsis of each story:
1. Jim Sturgess plays a 19th century lawyer traveling to the South Pacific on business for his father-in-law’s firm. He befriends a stowaway slave.
2. A young composer assists an old master (Jim Broadbent) and inspires him to a musical career renaissance.
3. In the 1970s, an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) explores possible dangerous games being played at a Three Mile Island-like nuclear power plant.
4. In present-day England, a book publisher (Broadbent again) winds up running from gangsters, inadvertently incarcerated in a nursing home. This is the best of the film’s individual stories. Broadbent simply crushes it.
5. In near-future Korea, a low-level cafe server becomes a major cog in a revolution.
6. In the more distant future set after the fall of civilization, two people (Hanks and Berry) must travel to a faraway destination to unlock some mysteries of the universe.
The film cuts back and forth between these six stories, but I found it all very easy to follow. It isn’t until the sixth one (in which the future population speaks in a hard to get, almost Cajun-like dialect) where goings-on get a little fuzzy.
Like I said, this is probably going to be a film that polarizes people. A lot of people are going to find it either too difficult to follow (you really have to watch closely and it’s going to be a film that rewards at least a second viewing) or pretentious. There’s a lot of “what’s it all mean?” going on, mixed with a lot of past lives, and spirituality and a lot of people may be put off by it. If you were put off by the spiritual nature of The Tree of Life, you might be similarly put off here, though Malick’s philosophy is specifically very Christian.
But, there’s a lot to admire.
First of all, I’m kind of amazed this movie exists at all. Cloud Atlas is clearly a movie that cost some money to make, it’s going to be aimed at thoughtful adult filmgoers, and it’s rated R. My hats off to Warner Bros. for taking the risk on distributing something like this, but it’s going to be an insanely tough movie to market.
The acting is uniformly good across the board. Hanks hasn’t been this good in a long time, and I was especially entertained by his brief turn in the fourth story as a loutish street thug whose tell-all memoir gets savagely reviewed. Hanks seems to be having a ball subverting his Jimmy Stewart-esque persona. I’m a Broadbent fan from way back, and he’s especially good in the fourth story, which allows him to take center stage. Halle Berry’s big story is the third one, and she does sturdy, reliable work here. Hugo Weaving plays a riff on Nurse Ratched and also turns up in the last story as a Satan-like creature that looks a lot like the villain from The Princess and the Frog, who was voiced by Keith David, who also turns up in Cloud Atlas in multiple roles. Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon, and Ben Whishaw (the once and future Q) round out the great cast.
The film was co-directed by the Wachowskis (out of Speed Racer movie jail) and Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), and I’m not sure how the division of labor was handled. The futuristic Korean section has the Wachowskis fingerprints all over it, though. I remember reading that the two directing units were working independently of each other (please feel free to correct me if I’m misremembering anything), and if that’s true, the film cuts together into a pretty cohesive whole.
Cloud Atlas has its flaws, but I liked it a lot and it’s an extremely ambitious movie. And, for those of us who are film fans, a big movie with big ideas swinging for the fences is very much worth your time.
I can’t wait to see it again.