“Remarkable,” “Convoluted,” “Entertaining,” “Sprawling,” “Masterful,” “Transcendant,” and “Guaranteed to divide,” are the words the critics have been using to describe Cloud Atlas. I prefer what was said by the film’s three directors, Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachoswki, and Andy Wachowski (creators of The Matrix and Run Lola Run), when they premiered the six-minute first trailer: “It’s hard to sell, hard to describe, because it’s hard to reduce.”
Based on the highly-acclaimed (and highly-recommended) novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is not one three-hour movie much like the novel is not one 500-page book. It is actually a collection of six 30-minute movies spread across time, space, and genre. These short films have been chopped up and spliced together with interruptions and mid-sentence stops, with voice-overs carrying across multiple stories, and with connections both explicit and implicit. It is an ambitious and unusual film, but unlike other attempts to create grand scope and provoke philosophical debate, Cloud Atlas is also wonderfully fun and entertaining. Tree of Life is an attempt to interweave different eras and themes, but for all its artistic quality, it is still a cure for insomnia. But Cloud Atlas’ directors are eager to entertain, and for all the ambition driving the film it never forgets to tell a good narrative.
The ambition of the project becomes clearer when the cast is considered. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant are among the main cast, and every one plays at least three parts. Several of the actors, including Hanks, actually play six parts; one role for each section of Cloud Atlas, playing different personalities, different races, and even different genders.
In these six sections the film covers major genres and time periods: a dying doctor on a Pacific voyage in 1849, letters from a composer to his lover in pre-WWII Europe, a conspiracy thriller in the 1970s, a modern-day comedy of a publisher committed to a nursing home, the future rebellion of a clone in Korea, and the post-apocalyptic survival story of a tribe living on Hawaii. Taken alone any of these stories would be worthy films, but woven together they become part of a larger work that is offered up to the audience for interpretation.
One of my favourite sections is the earliest, the 1849 travel of Adam Ewing (Sturgess) as he is being cared for by Dr. Henry Goose. The eccentric doctor is brought to life by Tom Hanks, and is one of the best examples in the film of how the casting adds new levels of enjoyment to the stories. Like a blockbuster adaptation of “Where’s Waldo?” it is a lot of fun trying to spot all the famous faces hidden under the make-up. At the end of the film the credits include the answer-key with all the actors’ characters showing up alongside their name, and it’s likely that several will come as a surprise.
Cloud Atlas is a film like The Avengers in that the people who like it and the people who don’t like it will probably be saying the same thing; “so massive,” and “too massive,” are reviews from personal taste. It’s impossible to make a film that everyone likes, and Cloud Atlas is not for everyone. It is three hours long, after all, and there is violence and romance alongside foul language and futuristic slang. Fans of Grant may find it difficult to see the rom-com leading man in the same light after seeing him play the warrior chief of a tribe of cannibals. But, for the other side of the audience, this film includes Grant playing the warrior chief of a tribe of cannibals! Depending on how you approach that line (exclamation point or period) might tell you if Cloud Atlas is a film you will enjoy.
The best I can say is that I enjoyed it. When I wasn’t enjoying the characters and their stories, I enjoyed the filmmaking. When I wasn’t enjoying the filmmaking, I enjoyed the music. There was never a moment where I felt the film was dragging too long, skipping over something important, or failing to hold my attention. It is a sprawling epic in the best way, and I highly recommend giving it the opportunity to surprise you.