This Friday sees the release of the long-awaited “Cloud Atlas,” a three-way collaboration with some of the most talented filmmakers working today: Tom Tykwer, the German director behind the art-house smash “Run Lola Run” and the criminally underrated period thriller “Perfume: Story of a Murderer,” and the Wachowskis, best known for their influential “Matrix” trilogy and 2008’s massive flop “Speed Racer.” The film is based on David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel “Cloud Atlas,” which works as a series of concentric circles — six stories, in total, which reverse direction once the book hits its midway point — covering a wide breadth of the human experience (and a multitude of literary genres), from an American notary traveling across the Pacific ocean in 1850 to a gay romance set in pre-World War II Europe to a clone revolt in the distant future.
Does the cinematic reincarnation of Mitchell’s excellent book do it justice? Or is it a whole bunch of hogwash not worthy of your time? Read on to find out!
PRO: It’s Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen Before…
To achieve the replication of the book’s style and form, the directors decided to have the same handful of actors (among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant) play roles in each section. So, for instance, you’ll see Hanks play a thuggish modern-day author who throws a critic off a roof, a nefarious nineteenth-century doctor and a post-apocalyptic survivor wrestling with demonic urges. The movie also cuts around between the various stories throughout the whole running time, never settling in one scenario for more than a few minutes at a time. The effect is something like the last 30 minutes of “Inception” (with multiple storylines existing on different planes of dreamlike reality), except stretched across a genuinely epic three-hour run-time. This structure does much to emphasize the movie’s views on the elasticity of time and space and the recurring theme of reincarnation. The scope and scale of “Cloud Atlas” are unbelievable, and it’s a genuine feat to have the directors’ corral their individual visions into a (mostly) cohesive whole.
CON: … That’s Not Necessarily A Good Thing
At first, the incessant cutting is invigorating, with a feeling of bewilderment and confusion that isn’t exactly unpleasant (it certainly beats a movie that goes to great lengths to over-explain everything) and somehow mimics our current cultural state of multiple browser tabs, texting, tweeting and constant Facebook-updating. Sadly, at a certain point, right before the last act, that sensation of exuberant experimentation wears thin, replaced by a feeling that borders on exhaustion. Sometimes the crosscutting actively lessens the drama and excitement, as in the case of an extended aerial chase sequence set in a neon-drenched futuristic Korea and much of the cross-Pacific voyage, since we’re never given enough time to let any moment truly set in.
CON: If You Haven’t Read The Book, You’re Going To Be Especially Lost
Watching “Cloud Atlas,” I felt like I had an ace in my pocket — I had actually read Mitchell’s novel. If you haven’t, then whole swaths of “Cloud Atlas,” no matter how hard the directors work to underline the movie’s thematic concerns, will probably come across as a barely comprehensible muddle. (It’s not.) Things become clearer after the movie’s first hour, but that’s a lot of work to put in just to keep up with the basic narrative (there was at least one walkout at the screening we attended). “Cloud Atlas” is definitely worth the effort, though.
PRO: It’s Woozily, Drunkenly Romantic
Despite all of the cutting around, the sheer beauty and romantic grandeur of “Cloud Atlas” persists. At times, each separate moment is so gorgeous and earnest that you get choked up. When these moments start to bump up against each other, cascading through time and space, is when the movie really hits its stride and becomes a singularly powerful piece of pop art, a kind of glittery cubist fairy tale. If you have someone in your life who you’d cross centuries for and happily wear goofy prosthetic makeup around, well, I suggest you take them to see “Cloud Atlas.”
PRO: Playing Spot-The-Actor
One of the more primal kicks when watching “Cloud Atlas” is trying to spot the various actors as they pop up in different roles, obscured or camouflaged by make-up and prosthetic appliances. It’s easy to notice Hugh Grant as the slippery owner of a nuclear power plant in a section set in the ‘70s (it resembles paranoid thrillers of the period), less so when he shows up a few stories later as a war-painted warrior in the distant post-apocalyptic future. Actors are constantly shapeshifting, changing scale and size, gender and ethnicity. Sometimes the effects are clunky but you’re never truly taken out of the story (which is priority number one), and for the most part, it adds another layer of gentle psychedelic on top of an already surreal world.
CON: It’s A Movie For Everyone and No One
On one hand the movie’s themes are so universal and straightforward that it’s hard to imagine them not touching moviegoers (any moviegoer, really), on the other hand, it’s almost unstoppably weird. We can easily see stuffy art-house types, drawn in by the promotional imagery promising a period drama, disconnect entirely during the science-fiction sequences and be turned off by the movie’s often times graphic violence. It’s also going to be a terrifically difficult movie to tell people about. The conversation will probably go something like this:
Someone: “What’s ‘Cloud Atlas’ and why should we see it?”
Me: “Oh it’s this thing with Tom Hanks, it’s sort of, um, a cosmic exploration of love and communication stretched across hundreds of years and a half-dozen narrative styles, featuring recurring actors and visual motifs used as a shorthand for the cyclical nature of life and reincarnation…”
Someone: [blank stares]
Me: “Yeah, ‘Skyfall’ is really good too.”