REVIEW: Cloud Atlas (2012)

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Have you ever experienced a flash of déjà vu, or feel like your life has been affected by some unexpected karma? Are we all connected to people from the past and do our actions influence the future? These questions (and many more) are tackled by the collaborative team of Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer), whose ambitious large-scale screen adaptation of David Mitchell’s dense, multi-narrative 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, is a masterful achievement. The film’s four-year journey to the screen was a difficult one, and with the production budget predominantly supplied by independent sources, it is one of the most expensive independent films ever made. Unfortunately, a poor showing at the U.S box office has resulted in a limited Australian release. Though some may find navigating these boldly assembled interweaving of stories frustrating and unmanageable, Cloud Atlas repeatedly rewards patience and becomes a masterfully epic experience that should not be missed.

Cloud Atlas tells six simultaneous stories, and unlike in the novel, where I believe the stories are introduced consecutively and leak into one another, here they are cut together to create the feeling of parallel existence, despite being separated by decades and centuries. What could a San Francisco lawyer journeying through the South Pacific in 1849, a young British composer in 1936, a journalist who stumbles across a conspiracy in 1973, an aging publisher wrongly admitted to a retirement home in 2012, a Neo-Soul clone/liberator in 2144 and a tribesman in an unknown post-apocalyptic future possibly have in common? As we explore each of these fascinating tales, we find not only the same actors appearing in wildly different roles, we watch as each of the characters are met with conflict and antagonism (often unjust authority) and must rely on acts of love, kindness, and bravery to overcome them. Over time, a killer becomes a hero and unlikely friendship inspires a revolution.

Technically, Cloud Atlas is marvelous. The meticulous editing is an extraordinarily complex achievement, the make-up department – unbelievably missing out an Oscar nomination – and visual effects team also score top marks. What I immediately loved was the wonderfully addictive score – collaboration between Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek – which effectively layers all of the different stories, and progresses through some beautiful progressions that both build tension and provoke evoke emotions of awe.

These stories are not just connected by reference to the characters in the preceding story and the ensemble of actors, but also by music, shared motif, visual cues and mirrored images, and location-changes. Considering the details and piecing together all of the clues can send one a little nuts, and it is for this reason the film warrants repeated viewings. That’s not to say a second look is required, but I dare say it will be desired to fully fathom the scope of this tale.

Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae and Tom Hanks take on the signature characters, distinguished by an identical birth mark, but they each – along with Hugo Weaving, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant – appear in multiple stories, often as unrecognizable supports. Young actors Sturgess and Wishaw continue to impress, but Hanks, Broadbent and Bae (outstanding in the Neo-Soul story) are perhaps the strongest performers. Hank’s unlikely versatility is incredible. It is also terrific to see veterans like Grant (perfect as a smarmy nuclear physicist), David (imposing, but often underused), and Weaving (portraying a couple of variations of Agent Smith) given many different things to do.

The first hour of Cloud Atlas presents a potential challenge, asking the audience to remain attentive to each of these individual stories, which are purposefully cut into one another at what are seemingly inopportune times. As a result this film, at a ridiculously brisk near-three hours, never bores and is so cleverly assembled that you don’t have time (nor need) to drop your attention. But you also don’t have to worry too much about working hard to piece everything together. If you place your trust in the filmmakers, all the sprawling dots will eventually connect. This doesn’t mean that the film denies or dismisses personal interpretation and imagination. Quite the contrary. It is a film that could provoke much post-contemplation.

Though I don’t think the film wholly succeeds on an emotional level, and certainly some stories work better than others, conceptually it is mind blowing and the technical work is highly commendable. What transpires is brutal and disturbing, beautiful and life affirming. Cloud Atlas is a tough sell but it really is unlike anything I have seen before. Leaving perplexed, frustrated and unsatisfied is understandable, but personally I found it enjoyable and profound, and should not be overlooked.

and a half

Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22