“Yesterday my life was headed in one direction, today it is headed in another.”
To pick a single inspirational, affecting, and notable quote from Cloud Atlas, directed by the divine trifecta of Tom Tykwer and The Wachowski Siblings, is like trying to pick a favorite album by The Beatles. Every time you think you finally solidified your choice, you realize how much you love another one or how much a handful of songs on a different album resonate with you. The one I chose above is the closest I could get to naming a favorite, mainly because it’s a statement that can be easily related to everybody, whether you’ve seen the film or not. It stands beside a quote from one of my favorite films, the unfairly loathed and misunderstood Cameron Crowe film, Vanilla Sky, “Every waking moment is a chance to turn it all around;” emphasizing the realization that the path of today will most definitely not be the path of tomorrow, let alone the path that you could meander down in the next few minutes. You have the opportunity, every morning when you roll out of bed and every passing minute of the day, to change what is ahead of you. Cloud Atlas presents this as a mystical force that drives all life, in a time block from 1849 to ‘106 Winters After The Fall,’ and it also happens to be a film that will change my life as a critic of contemporary film, a student of filmmaking, and a human being forever.
Based upon David Mitchell’s ambitious novel comes the equally as ambitious cinematic adaptation that tells six full, simultaneously presented storylines over the course of a few centuries that all vaguely connect through characters, occurrences, actions, and imagery demonstrating the binding connectivity of the past, present, and future featuring a marvelous ensemble cast where each actor plays between three and six characters over the course of the six timelines. It’s a bold and daring epic, running approximately eight minutes under three hours, that sounds far more intimidating and risky than it turns out to be. Considering it as an existential, and less-forced Crash, these three filmmakers take us on a sweeping journey backward and forward through time with a consistent energy that fluidly and effortlessly transcends massive tonal changes, various character motivations, and, most impressively, cinematic convention. Conquering taboo subjects like heaven, the afterlife, and all that brouhaha, Cloud Atlas is an entertaining cinematic experience that, granted its unmistakable complexity in scope, is a surprisingly simplistic viewing, therefore paralleling its thematic pinnacle: The simplicity of connection.
As I walked into the theater for my initial viewing (I’ve seen it twice now), I found myself prepping mentally for a potentially overwhelming film, but once its pace began to settle and I allowed the precise and expertly placed edits to lead me from story to story in a naturally rhythmic fashion, I became entranced by every movement and every action sifting through the maze of development, thus studying every character and observing the parallels between storylines without any internal viewer stress – the occupational hazard of any moviegoer who dares to what so many films these days stray away from condoning: Being asked to think. For any cinephile, Cloud Atlas is as much a game as it is an immersive movie experience because its expansive cast is masked beneath heavy makeup in many of the storylines making some virtually unrecognizable, but when you realize who it is underneath the prosthetics or when a specific connection is revealed, it precipitates the process of understanding what happens to the soul of each character as they progress through each of these lifetimes. How do they change and why do they change? For instance, why does Tom Hanks play a ruthlessly greedy colonial doctor and an overly sensitive Scottish mobster, as well as a hopelessly romantic chemical scientist and a brave tribesman; how does Halle Berry find her courage over hundreds of years, peaking during a personal and journalistic crisis in the 1970s; what makes Hugh Grant become more savage throughout history? Cloud Atlas dares us to wax philosophical about the development of the human soul and how our mistakes wrinkle the space time continuum allowing us to revisit missed opportunities and hopefully make better decisions – exemplified by the result of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry’s storyline, which provides the frame for the entire film.
This frame – a rousing campfire tale orally recounted by an elderly Tom Hanks – also makes Cloud Atlas a creative exposé about formalism. Like Mitchell’s original novel, which told the rising action of the first five stories followed by the entirety of the sixth plot before telling the falling action of each story in reverse order and culminating in the resolution of the very first story, the Wachowskis and Tykwer prove the sheer power of storytelling by weaving the progression of six vastly different plots into a concise overarching tale with a base structure that magically matches any traditional novel or film. The editing represents their studied syntax and the placement of each player is an examination of their diction. The phrasing of each particular segment matches the other segments due to various plot points, hence crafting a visual essay of New Criticism; a mosaic that praises storytelling by gracefully and wondrously taking six short films and constructing them as one perspicacious piece.
The Wachowski Siblings, who the world can thank for The Matrix trilogy and the questionable Speed Racer, and Tom Tykwer, of Run Lola Run fame, exhibit possibly the finest unification of directorial powers I’ve seen on screen recently. Not only did they raise the $100 million dollar budget for their independent production without any major studio support, they also divided up the directing duties of the six stories by claiming three each remaining conscious of all that the other party was filming in order to pictorially demonstrate the connections successfully. They oversaw every splice in the editing suite and built the film piece-by-piece allowing for ultimate clarity and synthesis. The result of this impressive feat is one of the most important films in cinema history as of late. Sure, Cloud Atlas is bold, I’ve already said that, but its desire to test audiences’ minds in a way unseen before now, and to showcase something so unbelievably bodacious that some feared this supposedly unfilmable material could ruin their careers forever is such a testament to their commitment as filmmakers. The audacity of a production like this is simply unbelievable. Regardless of what side of The Tree of Life spectrum you place yourself, like or dislike, I wholeheartedly declare that Terrence Malick wishes he could make something like Cloud Atlas complete with an engaging plot (multiple at that), unique and complete character development, stimulating visuals, and an emotional presence that has you crying one minute and laughing the next, followed by surprise, then entrancement, then horror, also heartbreak and finally fulfillment. There are no pretentious whisperings, nature shots or dinosaurs to be found here.
On a standard critical level, there is little left to say that has not already been praised within this analysis. Every cast member is key and projects their importance in their small, blink-and-you-miss it roles just as much as they do in their leading ones. While Hanks and Beery are very solid (Hanks’ ruthless Scot is a hoot and Berry’s Luisa Rey is an ass-kicker), the standouts are the indelible Jim Broadbent, a tragic Ben Whishaw, and the phenomenal romancers Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae. The vibrant and moving original score by co-director Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil is beautiful to say the least and should be a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination (I’ve had the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ on repeat since returning from the theater). Honestly, to discuss other technical merits would just be repetitive. As I’ve stated, there is far more to admire about this movie and looking at it as one would any other standard celluloid delivery to the multiplex is barely scratching the surface.
From a swashbuckling Conrad-esque tale of European colonization to a dramatically romantic period piece, into a nail-biting detective mystery and an outrageous British comedy, and then a sci-fi Blade Runner-inspired actioner and finally a post-apocalyptic adventure, Cloud Atlas shows that life continues, history repeats itself, love is eternal and the world continues to spin. Only so rarely does a film like Cloud Atlas come about, and when I say rarely I mean that this film is the first of its kind: a literal epic that makes a clear point of transcending all conventional boundaries of filmmaking by presenting six continuous storylines simultaneously illustrating the slight connections and poignant reverberations that ripple through time and space connecting every single one of us to all that is surrounding.
A motion picture that asks bold questions like “Do you believe in an afterlife?” and sardonic ones, “You ever feel like the world is against you?”, Cloud Atlas never provides definitive answers, it presents a possible eventuality to why a phenomenon like déjà vu may be the resurgence of a previous connection, how our lives will turn around, and when our souls will reinvent themselves “from womb to tomb.” In more than one instance, characters draw the conclusion that “our lives are not our own” presuming that we have all been here before under different circumstances. Where we go and where we have gone lay in the balance of all that we have done and seek to accomplish and while our past lives may have landed us in the present, we have the almighty power in the now to prosper eternally. After all, death is only a door and if our dreams, aspirations, and actions are merely drops in a limitless ocean, let it be all of our single drops that create this uplifting ocean.
As I think about what is pasted onto my schedule for the days and weeks that lie ahead, I can only wonder what directions my life will be headed in, not only in the near future but the far future as well. But the world is my oyster for all boundaries are conventions, and Cloud Atlas is a triumphant work of cinematic poetry that boldly goes where no film has gone before and has shown me hope for cinema and humanity as a whole.
Article by Mike Murphy