Since I try to avoid trailers and commercials, I’m not sure how Cloud Atlas is being sold to the public. Hopefully people are being made aware that it’s unique as a film. It doesn’t have a traditional narrative or structure. It’s almost like the world’s most expensive experimental student film. This could have backfired in other hands but pays off beautifully in this case.
The credit for the success of this arthouse/blockbuster starts with the writer/directors, as in plural. This bizarre collaboration has no less than 3 creative forces–The Wachowski siblings, who have always worked together, and Tom Tykwer, still best known for his amazing 1998 German movie, “Run Lola Run.” These 3 shared a love of the book Cloud Atlas and figured the only way to do such a sprawling, unusual story was to split it up. To that end, they each directed half of the movie…but in a very cool way. The story is actually 6 small stories that are interconnected. They span hundreds of years of history, both past and future, and thousands of miles. Tykwer directed 3 of these, and the Wachowskis did the other 3. Despite different styles, they manage to come together as a cohesive whole.
Within these 6 stories, many members of the cast play different roles. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are in all 6 stories, with elaborate makeup, costumes and playing entirely different characters. Many more of the cast appears in 4 or 5 of the stories. It’s really remarkable trying to recognize some of the secondary actors as they pop up, and even if you’re looking, you will probably still miss a few. This might seem like a bit of a distraction, and to some extent it is. However, the film moves so quickly and is engrossing enough that you quickly stop looking for famous faces.
Cutting back and forth between the stories, the movie jumps in time and place drastically. You might go from a slave plantation to an apocalyptic future in seconds. There is no way to predict what story might be next, since they don’t go in order. They just weave together into a big tapestry. The movie comes in very close to 3 hours, about 30 minutes per story. It’s a long time, but it doesn’t drag. The Dark Knight Rises was 2 hours and 45 minutes, and probably has more slow spots. With 6 different stories, your attention is always focused, but always changing gears to keep up to speed. Luckily, the stories are all interesting. Everyone will have different opinions on which stories are better or worse, but I don’t think any of them are bad. Even if you really dislike one, just wait 5 minutes and you’re on to a different time and place altogether.
This must have been a ton of fun for the actors. They got to play different characters, use different accents, and even play different races. Despite the large budget, it might have felt a little like drama club in high school, where you might have several parts, both big and small, over one season. Everyone does a great job too: I was particularly impressed with Hugh Grant, who plays a barely-recognizable cannibal covered in war paint, and Hugo Weaving, who plays men, a woman, and even a supernatural ghost/vision/devil creation.
Cloud Atlas manages to seem important without being pretentious. The themes of the movie are the biggest possible–life, love, meaning, kindness, cruelty, justice. Yet I didn’t get the sense that it had a specific message, and it didn’t seem preachy. It seemed to me that it was more interested in just getting people to think about life, and their place in it. I’m very tempted to see this a second time but also a bit nervous. On one hand, I would like to look for further connections and support something that is very different from modern Hollywood movies. On the other hand, I wonder if part of the reason I liked it so much was the sense of discovery, watching something unique and surprising creative. I expect reactions will vary widely, depending on your patience with this unusual style of movie. I hope it has something for everyone who gives it a chance though.