Despite Challenges, Ambitious 'Atlas' Reigns Supreme
Published: Sunday, October 28, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
How ambitious is Cloud Atlas? Let us count the ways. This is a movie with three directors, six storylines spanning at least five centuries, a budget of $102 million, and a running time of nearly three hours. Its multiple story threads include a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller, a 19th-century historical tale of a slave earning his freedom, and two futuristic sci-fi episodes—one set in “Neo Seoul” in 2144 and the other a century after the apocalypse. The cast includes a huge assortment of talent from the U.S., England, Korea, and across the world, and each of the main actors—including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving—play six different roles, one for each separate storyline. Finally, Cloud Atlas is based on an acclaimed 2004 novel by David Mitchell, so on top of the film’s other considerable challenges, the directors have to worry about pleasing ardent fans of the book.
It’s surprising enough that anyone would attempt such an ambitious undertaking in today’s risk-averse Hollywood climate. What’s even more surprising is how well Cloud Atlas works. The directing team of Andy and Lana Wachowski—the siblings behind the Matrix trilogy and Speed Racer—and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer, best known for his 1998 thriller Run Lola Run, have collaborated to create a movie that is equal parts art film and blockbuster. The end result is inspired and moving, even if some of the parts are problematic. Cloud Atlas is not a perfect movie—some of the segments work better than others and sometimes the film’s gimmicks are distracting rather than engaging. Still, such occasional hiccups do little to diminish the film’s power and its impressive ability to skillfully integrate so many moving parts.
The stories told in Cloud Atlas range from the intimate to the epic. On the intimate side of the scale is the tale of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a closeted young composer who shadows an aging master in the hopes of producing his masterpiece. In a more comic vein, there is the farcical modern-day story of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), an aging London publisher who stages an escape from an oppressive nursing home. On the epic side of the scale, there is the story of Sonmi-451(Doona Bae), a cloned “fabricant” in a futuristic South Korea who attempts a revolution, as well as the post-apocalyptic tale of Zachry (Tom Hanks), a tribesman who forges an alliance with the mysterious Meronym (Halle Berry) to help save his people.
The movie’s tagline promises that “Everything is Connected,” and indeed it is, in both plot and style. Rather than telling each story in turn, the movie interweaves the different threads, cutting back and forth to find thematic resonances across the different stories. The editing is elegant and inspired, producing rapturous moments where the separate stories seem to be speaking to one another. As the movie unspools, it becomes clear that the stories are connected by more than just theme, too. Still, the Wachowskis and Tykwer do not spoon-feed the audience with easy narrative links, instead trusting us to pay attention and discern the connections.
In a film of such sprawling ambition, it’s inevitable that some parts fall flat. The most problematic section of the movie is the post-apocalyptic one, largely because of the decision to have the actors speak in a primitive, semi-English pidgin that is often incomprehensible and sometimes laughable. The directors’ stunt of multiple-casting all of the main actors is central to the movie’s theme, but it sometimes proves distracting—like when Hugh Grant shows up slathered with Asian makeup, or when Hugo Weaving is called upon to play a middle-aged English nurse. There’s lots of fun to be had in figuring out who’s who, but these gimmicks often distract from the story.
In sum, though, Cloud Atlas is an undeniably impressive achievement. Its themes may be rather obvious—all of humanity is connected, and even the smallest actions can have huge consequences—but the beauty of a tale lies in the telling. With its epic proportions, visual wonder, and a directing team fully committed to its grand conceits, Cloud Atlas is a beauty indeed.