“All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended.”
There seems to be little to no place for ambition in Hollywood these days; once a place willing to take daring risks and push boundaries, Hollywood has settled into a rut of recycling and rehashing old material and has grown sedentary in its ability to make loads of money off of unoriginal remakes and adaptations. Thankfully, there is a bright spot in a year mostly filled with sequels, prequels, reboots, and adaptations: Cloud Atlas. Though itself an adaptation of David Mitchell’s equally fantastic novel, there is no questioning Cloud Atlas’ ambition and the immense risks it takes as an exhilarating and unique piece of filmmaking. What could have easily turned into a pretentious and overlong mess is instead an emotional, romantic, and bold epic that is as experimental as it is moving. Cloud Atlas is a daring piece of filmmaking that challenges its audience with big questions and grand stories, but if you stick with the film, you’ll find one of the most inventive, audacious, and satisfying films of not only this year but of the past decade as well.
The film interweaves six different stories from the past, present, and future, all of which are introduced to the audience at first in chronological order. First we have the story of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a 19th century lawyer who is embarking on the long sea journey back home to San Francisco from Africa. Next we have the 1931 story of Robert Frobisher (an exceptional Ben Whishaw), who begins to assist the ailing composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in creating one last masterpiece. Then we have the story of Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a 1970’s reporter who is investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding the opening of a nuclear reactor. The fourth story takes place in present London and follows Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish, a book publisher who is locked in a nursing home against his will. We then cut to the future where we witness a rebellion against society through the eyes of a service clone, Somni-451 (Doona Bae, a quite knockout). Lastly, we follow Zachary (Tom Hanks) in the far off future where society has all but crumbled and the last remnants of humanity struggle to survive.
The main hook of Cloud Atlas is the idea of recurring lives. The film deals with the idea that each character’s life is his/her own as well as one of many repeating lives in which they are born and reborn throughout time in different cultures, societies, and genders. It deals with the idea of souls being tied with one another and how we are bound to each other life after life. It plays with big philosophical ideas about nature vs. nurture and shows that while our identity may change due to the environment around us, our natural essence is the same no matter what. It’s a lot to comprehend, but it’s an extraordinary premise that the filmmakers capitalize on fantastically.
It is impossible to talk about Cloud Atlas without immediately discussing its structure and the way the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer tell the different stories. Rather than tell six entirely separate stories, the filmmakers overlap the narratives constantly. We may get a long fifteen or twenty minutes in one story, only to be taken away to a different one for only a brief amount of time. While many might find this disconcerting and distracting, in reality it is one of the most brilliant parts of the film. The entire theme of the movie is that there are certain qualities that are intrinsic in human nature that no outside force can change, be it the time or the environment in which you live. Some parts of humanity are too entrenched in our souls to be affected by age or space. The intercutting between the different stories is used to show this idea that the struggles of humanity aren’t unique to a certain time but rather are a universal feeling that transcends time. This idea is further strengthened by the fact that each storyline deals with the similar theme of overcoming adversity and fighting for freedom, both personally and nationally. The idea of standing up to those in power for what is right is not a new idea, but it’s a universal one, and the movie makes the case that this idea and feeling is so strong that it resonates throughout history and into the future, that acts of defying oppression in the late 1800s can reverberate through time and affect the choices of a boiling rebellion in the way future.
Every choice the directors make in this movie ties back into this idea that humanity is bound to repeat certain aspects of itself throughout time, and it is because of this idea that the filmmakers chose to cast actors as different parts in every single storyline. This is a purposeful choice by the creators to show that our souls carry on through time, subconsciously learning from our past lives and constantly trying to rectify their mistakes. It’s a very interesting and risky directional choice, but one that pays off exceptionally, especially thanks to the astonishing make-up that, for instance, turns Hugo Weaving into a nasty Nurse Ratched type and Halle Barry into a white German-Jewish housewife. Each actor is so versatile and talented that he/she is able to layer each one of his/her characters with aspects of their past lives, be it the scene-stealing Jim Broadbent or the emotionally gut-renching Ben Whishaw. As you see each character move from one storyline to another, you can see him/her building on what they’ve experienced before. They aren’t blank slates ready to be rewritten, they are amalgamations of all of their lives that came before. Without spoiling anything, this is most visible in Tom Hanks’ arc as you watch him transform throughout the six storylines into someone who is capable of rising to the occasion, and he ultimately becomes a hero thanks to all he has experienced in his past lives. He doesn’t just grow in one storyline, but he grows throughout each one to the point where he is able to risk his own life for the good of humanity. The audacity of this arc is astounding – it’s never been done before, and it could have easily failed, but somehow the Wachowskis and Tykwer manage to pull it off.
It’s funny too because that last sentence can be attributed to almost every aspect of the film. The Wachowskis and Tykwer fill this movie with these grand, ambitious ideas that are amazing on paper but shouldn’t necessarily work on screen. It seems like the ideas and questions are too big for the modern movie, but somehow they manage to make a cohesive, subtle, and brilliant piece of artwork (no thanks in part to some of the most brilliant editing and music to hit the screen in quite sometime). Cloud Atlas is a rare original creation that is as successful as it is ambitious and it’s something everyone must and should see.
Review by James Hausman