Cloud Atlas is the most daring studio film I've seen this year. My feelings are decidedly mixed, but I can appreciate the sheer magnitude of effort. Coming in at a whopping two hours and fifty-minutes, Cloud Atlas is a labyrinthine exercise in philosophy and storytelling. It's comprised of six stories that take place over hundreds of years. These vignettes have several dominant themes that bind them together. The first is the strong oppressing the weak, and having the courage to fight for change. Then there is the theme of an immortal bond between lovers that transcends different lifetimes and bodies. Finally there is the idea of karma, and that one can right a wrong that damaged their soul in a previous life. The actors play multiple characters. The film is edited so that each scene cuts to a different story in another time. This style makes Cloud Atlas a highly immersive experience, but somewhat confusing in the sense that it takes a long time for the story to develop. I suspect some audiences will rave, while others may find it tedious and pretentious.
Cloud Atlas has a fine ensemble cast that pushes their acting range. While the primary stars are Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, a bevy of excellent actors populate the film's disparate plot. Each actor has quite a few parts, sometimes under heavy make-up, to play another race, sex, or age. There's too much going on plot-wise to get into great detail, but I will discuss my favorite part. The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish takes place in modern times and stars Jim Broadbent. Cavendish is a huckster publisher on the run from a gang of brutes he owes a small fortune. His evil brother, one of the characters played by Hugh Grant, gets him committed to a funny farm. Cavendish's treatment by the head nurse, a wicked Hugo Weaving in drag, leads him to concoct a goofy escape plan. This particular tale is quite funny, and in the contextual thread of Cloud Atlas, is indirectly responsible for a future rebellion hundreds of years in the future.
The film was directed by the Wachowskis (The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Here you have three directors shooting six stories for one film. The trio also adapted the script from David Mitchell's prize winning science fiction novel. I applaud them for their boldness of vision. Find what fault you may, Cloud Atlas is maverick filmmaking with purpose. Each story is very well done, edited skillfully into the overall plot with quality production design, costumes, and prosthetic make-up effects. The filmmakers succeed in portraying a world that ranges from Victorian to futuristic. Cloud Atlas may have issues but the craft behind the film is not one of them.
Sometimes a film can crumble under its own weight. Cloud Atlas is unfortunately too heavy for its own good. The runtime is way too long. It takes literally ninety-minutes before the film really starts coming together. And when it does, I felt a bit cheated. For all of its stature, the philosophy behind Cloud Atlas isn't that deep. Love lasts forever, karma will come back to haunt you, stand up for the weak, these are fairly common themes. Cloud Atlas dresses them up like thanksgiving, but in reality you're eating the same turkey for dinner. Art doesn't subscribe to keep it simple, but you can easily go overboard as well. Cloud Atlas could have cut thirty minutes and remained just as substantive.
I think you have to be mentally prepared for Cloud Atlas. It's so voluminous and artsy, a casual viewing will be a waste of three hours. I think it's a fantastic technical achievement bordering on pomposity. The new age spiritualism behind the story is flogged for too long and ultimately isn't that rewarding. However, the audacity of Cloud Atlas makes it a must see for any real fan of cinema. I'm stupefied that Warner Brothers shelled out a hundred million dollars to make a film like this. Good to know that art does trump commerce every once in a while.