Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’ Is Ambitious Filmmaking Rarely Experienced

By  · Published on October 26th, 2012

Editor’s note: Cloud Atlas finally arrives in theaters today, so please dive deep into it with this review, first published as part of our Fantastic Fest coverage on October 3, 2012.

It starts with an old, scarred, and obviously hard-lived man sitting near a campfire speaking to the audience, and it ends with the same scarred old man concluding his story at that same campfire talking to a group of children about past adventures. As the credits start to roll, it evokes a nostalgia that you may have just sat through the kind of immersive and imaginative tale that you wish you could recall all the details to tell it to your children exactly as it was told to you. All that was missing was a stick and a bag of marshmallows.

In between these comforting bookends is a story that transcends time, tonal cohesiveness, or convention of almost any kind. Cloud Atlas an elaborate, beautiful, and ever-growing spiderweb of human causality and inter-connectivity that’s woven together by themes that support an idea that we are never unbound from one another or a purpose. Your life is not necessarily your own as you are tied to others in your time, others who came before you, and those who will come long after. What you do is what will define you and will determine the living conditions of those who follow. What you do may seem insignificant, or irrelevant to the plan at large, but most everything matters – and if it doesn’t now it very well may matter many, many years from now.

Creation has a knack for doing that, and the filmmakers behind The Matrix Trilogy (The Wachowskis) and Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer) have an ability and desire to express it on-screen.

The multi-layered narrative of Cloud Atlas encompasses six story lines that take place in different eras and centuries of human existence. Three of the stories take place in the past, one is in the present, the other two in a distant future . They entail the trials of a European aristocrat (Jim Sturgess) trying to get home to his wife in the heyday of slavery, a talented 19th century composer (Ben Whishaw) in the midst of creating a timeless work of art and passionately longing for the love of his mate, a 2nd generation journalist (Halle Berry) trying to solve the mystery of a potentially corrupt energy plant in the 1970s, an elder book editor (Jim Broadbent) trying to escape the imprisonment of a mistreating retirement home, an enslaved android (Doona Bae) becoming exposed to the truth of her world by a man determined to free her for a larger cause, and, finally, a commoner (Tom Hanks) in the far distant future who is attempting to help a woman of another race and social class try to activate a signal on an abandoned mountain cliff.

Appearances by all of the above actors – along with Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, and Keith David, amongst others – extend beyond the stories in which they are the protagonist. None of the above persons appears in any fewer than four roles within the six stories; sometimes unrecognizably so.

To go through the entire plot of each story would be a tedious chore for the purpose of a film review (even the above caused me difficulty in recollection), but is also unimportant to the effect of the film. What each story is about is not quite as important to the experience as what they’re all “about,” because the individual narratives exist to speak the film’s larger universal language. It’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking that you would never expect to come out of a studio-produced picture, and you would be right because this wasn’t a studio-produced picture.

It’s also the kind of gorgeously expensive-looking production you would never expect could be feasibly made if a considerably large amount of funding had not been thrown at it. As to the latter I can’t speak to, but how a film this heavy on multi-era costumes, make-up prosthetics, A-list talent in front of and behind the camera, and visual exquisiteness in both its presentation of history and future (and sometimes both simultaneously) could have been made without the bank account of one of the major Hollywood studios is extraordinary; and most of all inspiring and hopeful.

Cloud Atlas defies typical “this was good, this was bad” discussion. Not to claim that it’s above it, but it’s difficult to break down into its parts to identify what does work and what doesn’t when the overall, unique experience in which they serve works. In comparison to the massive beauty of it all the smaller imperfections matter less and less. The picture isn’t perfect, but its flaws come not only at the attempt to grandly succeed, but by breaking ground in rarely visited territories. It’s difficult to fault a film for trying something new and only succeeding ninety percent of the time. Sometimes that ten percent really doesn’t make much difference, even if the film can convince you otherwise.

The Upside: Epic filmmaking, epic thinking, ambitious intentions, superb visual effects of the digital and practical kind, humorous, heart-breaking, cheerful, adventurous, and exciting. It’s thought-provoking and popcorn entertainment in equally delightful measure.

The Downside: You have to sit through six first acts before you get to six second acts, and so on; but even in that the co-co-filmmakers do a masterful job of balancing the lighthearted and funny with the epic, ambiguous and heavy.

On The Side: The Wachowskis claim that Tykwer had the Cloud Atlas theme song recorded before shooting ever began. It was always a method for the sibling directors to record music in post-production to service the scenes, but having the music beforehand helped carry the picture throughout by having something to latch onto. They now plan to utilize that method of recording the score before shooting more frequently.