I’m relieved we recently scrapped the letter grades here at PW, because a movie like Cloud Atlas renders them irrelevant. This mammoth, passionate and sometimes just plain goofy adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel is precisely the kind of grandiose folly that can cause a critic to tear his hair out at one moment only to gasp in awe just a few minutes later. Since its premiere last month at the Toronto Film Festival, I have heard Cloud Atlas described by some folks as the best movie of the year, while others call it the worst. The truth is that it usually feels like both at the same time.
Directed by Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy, splitting duties with Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer, this insanely ambitious film explodes Mitchell’s carefully constructed nesting doll stories into a single, centuries-spanning continuum where past, present and future overlap, as do recurring themes of enslavement and escape. The all-star cast keeps popping-up playing different (but sometimes oddly similar) characters in each disparate tale, often wearing elaborate prosthetic makeup that ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous—a turn of phrase which sort of sums up Cloud Atlas in a nutshell.
In one scene, we’re upon a ship at sea in 1879, where moneyed young Jim Sturgess is rethinking his casual racism whilst also being poisoned by a nefarious doctor (Tom Hanks, wearing an unfortunate putty nose). The next, we’re watching the slapstick hijinks of Jim Broadbent as a modern-day literary publisher accidentally committed to a nursing home he mistook for a hotel. Then, it’s the 1970s, and Halle Berry is a journalist investigating tendrils of corruption creeping around a nuclear power plant. Blink and you’ll miss the flip to Korea in 2144, as The Host’s Doona Bae finds herself the unlikely leader of a clone insurrection. There’s also a doomed love affair between Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy in 1931. Oh, and did I mention this is all framed by Hanks and Berry trudging across a wasteland, dodging cannibals and speaking pidgin English some 150 years after the apocalypse?
Yeah, I had a tough time following all that myself. The first 40 minutes or so of Cloud Atlas’ nearly three hours is such rough sailing, at times I found myself wishing for a cheat sheet or some sort of graph just so I could keep all these characters and storylines straight. (Helpful hints: Whenever Hugo Weaving is onscreen, he’s usually the bad guy, and Hugh Grant is always an asshole.)
And then something odd happens: The movie settles into a groove. I’m not much of a fan of the Wachowski’s Matrix saga, but their underrated Speed Racer wore down my defenses with its giddy, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink cinematic gusto. Similarly, Tykwer always struck me as more technician than artist, but there’s no denying that his pictures throb with momentum. Constantly shuttling here and back again while the separate stories slowly begin to philosophically mirror one another, Cloud Atlas finds a propulsive rhythm that clarifies as it goes along. It gets better.
There is some extraordinary filmmaking here, cutting on similar camera movements and matching character placement within the frame for seamless transitions between eras. Everything is always hurtling forward simultaneously, whether it’s Berry and Keith David in a scrappy blaxploitation-inspired shoot-out or Bae’s hyperkinetic escapes in a future dystopia that play out like the Matrix sequels we all wish the Wachowskis had made instead.
It also can be awfully tacky. (In particular, Hanks’ and Berry’s post-apocalyptic Jar-Jar speak made me wish I was deaf.) A lot of the time, Cloud Atlas feels like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance by way of Zardoz. Yet the kitsch factor is weirdly in keeping with the picture’s ardent, disarming sincerity. There’s not a cynical moment in these three hours, and the actors throw themselves into their roles with wild, foolhardy abandon. The multiple performances aren’t just a gimmick, as the Wachowskis and Tykwer desperately want us to see similar conflicts writ large and small over the enormity of human history, resolved only by bravery, compassion and reaching out to other, similarly marginalized people we were foolishly taught to fear.
Unlike most cold, mega-budget spectacles, Cloud Atlas feels deeply personal, almost hand-crafted. There’s an obvious corollary here between co-director Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski’s recent gender reassignment and the movie’s mutable approach to identity. Even at its most risible, this oddball picture has a groovy, inclusive spirit that seems downright revolutionary in this sterile, blockbuster age.