Cloud Atlas Redefines Epic Cinema

By bill - October 27, 2012

The Wachowskis team up with Tom Tykwer to deliver a lush, beautiful and entirely different kind of cinematic epic, and the controversial filmmakers may have fully realized the game-changing destiny they promised with The Matrix.

Cloud Atlas is the perfect project for the Wachowskis to tackle, on many levels. David Mitchell’s novel, telling six abstractly interconnected stories that span from the late 19th Century to a far, post-apocalyptic future, features many concepts familiar to the siblings.  Big philosophical ideas are packed into virtually every frame of this film, as our myriad cast ponders the meanings of love and loss, trust and betrayal, and reality itself, and the flow of these big ideas combined with big filmmaking is flawlessly smooth.  The Wachowskis previous attempt at something this heady and ambitious was Matrix Reloaded, which tried to pack everything into a clunky formula (fight-talk-fight-talk-etc), but whether it’s the inclusion of co-director Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame), or simply another decade to develop as artists, Cloud Atlas is brilliantly put together and flows perfectly start to finish.

Each of the six stories that compose this tapestry are wonderfully realized, entirely distinct from each other, and woven together very tightly– essentially, Cloud Atlas is telling six movies simultaneously, and it is edited well enough to keep all those plates spinning at once. There are times when we will stay in one specific story for a considerable amount of time, at other moments the stories are intercut virtually shot-by-shot.  The pacing is cinematically thrilling, especially the wonderful use of images and sounds and art to trigger our jumps between times, but I have a feeling repeated viewing will show the pacing of these jumps is more symbolic than stylistic– I love that Cloud Atlas is so dense with these details and flairs in every frame that I can’t even begin to fathom some of the thought behind these choices after a single viewing.

The biggest talk of this film is the use of cast– there are big names in this movie, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant, all of whom play multiple roles throughout the six interwoven stories.  The actors are all capable in their duties, often achieving amazing transformations through makeup and vocal work that are never quite photorealistic, but work very well in context. Hanks does his best work as Zachry, the family man hunter-gatherer in the post apocalyptic “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After.”  Maybe it’s just my love of post-apocalyptic cinema, but this segment was an intriguing and engrossing bit of survival fiction, grimy, dirty and nothing like the other future story, “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” set in Neo-Seoul, Korea, which sees the filmmakers fully realize the live action anime effect they have flirted with throughout the Matrix movies and Speed Racer.  It’s a visually arresting segment cut from the same cloth as Phillip K. Dick and even the Wachowskis’ own Matrix trilogy, and Doona Bae is incredible as the fabricant Sonmi-451, whose awakening leads us to the cusp of a revolution.

Halle Berry anchors “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” in which her investigative reporter uncovers a deadly corporate scandal with the help of some whistleblowers, while avoiding a deadly hitman sent to silence her.  Jim Broadbent is at the center of the whimsical, modern day comedy “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish,” in which his vain, under-achieving publisher is trapped in a retirement home against his will.  “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is set in the late 19th Century, with Jim Sturgess portraying the titular character, a man whose social awakening comes while he’s unwittingly being poisoned by his seeming ally.  Possibly the most powerful story in the film is “Letters from Zedelghem,” with Ben Whishaw as aspiring composer Robert Frobisher, who blazes the path toward creating his own, personal masterpiece.

Each story is so strong, it could have been compelling as its own feature, and while they characters and their world are so good I wanted to stay with them longer, the Wachowskis and Tykwer are able to make each feel complete with such limited screen time.  There are many common themes strung through all six stories, from the characters’ sense of social/ political/ conceptual awakening, to the need to revolt against the many sinister and oppressive forces in the world (many of whom are played by the likes of Hugh Grant and an unbelievably good Hugo Weaving). Without giving away the entire movie, I will say love the positivity that surges through this movie– much like their high concept Matrix finale, the Wachowskis are very much not interested in victory through revenge, or violence, and the resulting wins for many of the protagonists feel more thrilling and exhuberant the farther they are distanced from their opposition.

More than anything, Cloud Atlas is about love, but not necessarily romantic love.  The film looks at love as a broader concept, something ingrained into all life, hard coded into us and meant to be shared during our time in this existence. This sense of love leads to a connectivity between characters, a bond that transcends time and environment into something deeper, which is glued together through the use of art, music, writing and film.  In this world, art is the ultimate creative expression of love, and these bridges– a journal, a series of love letters, a novel, a comedy adaptation, a podcast– are the means to an important connection shared between past, present and future.

Cloud Atlas is a personal movie, and a surprisingly emotional one from directors known more for their technical skills than emotive storytelling, and it’s the missing element that held past endeavors of the filmmakers, which stopped after the stunning visuals and high concept philosophy. Dense, energetic and very, very smart, Cloud Atlas has a lot of important things to say, and it does so through a composition that ebbs and flows through this collection of distinct and well-crafted movements, just like Frobisher’s masterpiece, Cloud Atlas Sextet… and just like life.

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