Cloud Atlas is based on the award-winning novel by David Mitchell. Telling six distinct narratives that eventually interweave, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film that does the rare thing of justifying its lengthy running time. Not a single scene could be cut with us getting the same effect. At the end of the day, it will be one of the few movies that is worth talking about at year’s end, although the reason it’ll be worth mentioning will be up to the individual and what you’re personally looking for.
This is a film so rich in every filmic quality that no matter what you’re hoping to find, you’re going to see it done at its very best. A fantastic score, gorgeous visuals, superb acting, effective editing, tight pacing, emotional highs and lows, and one of the most engrossing and meaty narratives in recent memory — it’s all there for you to suck up. What the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have done here is create a cinematic masterpiece. It is, thus far, the best theatrical release of the year, and I’ll be surprised if it’s overthrown by anything coming out later on. It transcends.
I won’t try to describe the multiple storylines going on here. Just know that the principal cast members — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Dancy Doona Bae — appear in each one of them, sometimes playing multiple characters. Sometimes they’re so well-hidden under makeup and prosthetics that you won’t even notice them. When each actor is listed in the credits, a quick shot of each of their characters is shown, and you’ll be certain to have missed about half of their appearances.
In fact, part of the surprise of a movie like Cloud Atlas is seeing where each actor turns up. Sometimes, it’s done to great hilarity, like when Hanks appears as a profane British man who has just written a book that’s not selling. Or to see Hugo Weaving don a dress and a high pitched voice to see him — no, that would be telling. Just know that this is where much of the film’s levity occurs. Well, that, and one of the storylines involving an old-person prison break and bar fight. But I’ll leave you to discover the hilarity that ensues from that.
But then, playing off the humor are some very dark scenes. This is a film that doesn’t pull any punches, or cut away from any of its content. You will see murder, bloodshed, and other nastiness that you wouldn’t initially think you’d see in something that, at times, appears to be so jovial. Cloud Atlas reaches so high and so low just moments apart, and does both in such an effortless manner.
It all works to prove the film’s message that we’re all connected. Actions you do now have an effect on everyone around you, and everyone in the future, no matter how small they are. “Everything you do is a small drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” This message is repeated throughout the film, and is honestly pretty hard to miss, even if the narrative structure can be, at times, confusing. Simplifying Cloud Atlas down to this message isn’t fair, as it’s so much more than that, but at least it doesn’t find itself becoming pretentious, or something that only select people will “get.”
We progress through the film, seamlessly transitioning between each story whenever the film chooses to do so, Usually, we’ll leave one story on a cliffhanger — progressed just enough to grab our attention before moving along to the next — making us have to wait, have to beg, for the next chance to see it. And it does this with six different stories, all from different periods in time. This shouldn’t work, especially given how difficult it is to give each thread enough time, but each one is pulled off brilliantly here. And when they start intertwining, and you see how one affects the other, it’s a sight to behold.
By keeping each story intruding and absorbing, Cloud Atlas does something few movies passing the two-hour mark can do: justify the running time. It is worth the near three hours that it takes to play and there isn’t a single scene that should have been trimmed or cut completely. Everything goes toward telling a compelling narrative or further justifying its message.
It does this while mixing genres and styles, as well as having three directors at the helm. The Wachowskis, best known for their Matrix saga were behind three of the stories, while Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer did the other three. The two styles mash well together, and if you didn’t know it beforehand, you wouldn’t know that two teams worked on it. There are different styles, sure, but that conforms to the genre and gives each story a unique look. It’s not just that three stories feel different from the other three; each one is wholly unique, working in combination with the others to form something truly special.
This is also a film that might just rejuvenate the careers of some of its stars, a couple of whom appeared to be on their way out of the spotlight and into obscurity. Halle Berry has done nothing of importance for almost a decade, Hugh Grant hasn’t been relevant for that period of time, too. Tom Hanks is still involving, but he’s not the draw that he once was. The rest are all character actors. But Cloud Atlas gives them each a long time on-screen, and reminds us of the talent that each one possesses.
Cloud Atlas is a wonderful film that is easily worth the almost three hours that you need to invest in it. It tells six interesting stories that, in their own right, would be worth watching. Together, they create something magical, and the way they unfold is one of many reasons that this is, so far, the best theatrical release of the year. Adding in the gorgeous aesthetics, tight pacing, emotional peaks and valleys, strong acting and a wonderful score, and you have a film of a quality rarely seen coming from anyone or anywhere.