Cloud Atlas was considered an unfilmable book, but that didn’t stop directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski from turning into a movie. It’s a narrative that takes place over six time frames, from the distant past to way in the future where lives and people keep intersecting over the course of human history. It’s a bold narrative, one that’s going to send some people into fits of boredom and annoyance, but also one of the great films about belief, and how our world works. Audacious and daring, Cloud Atlas is one of the best films of 2012.

The Players

The Plot:

There are six timelines. In one a sick man (Sturgess) tries to get home during the times of slavery, in another a musician (Whishaw) in the 1930′s tries to compose his masterpiece: the Cloud Atlas, in the 1970′s a reporter (Berry) attempts to uncover a conspiracy about nuclear power, in the present an old man tries to escape an old folks home, in the distant future a robotic girl (Bae) comes to understand her role as a cog in the system and leads a revolt, while in the unforseeable post-apocalyptic future, one man (Hanks) from a scavenger tribe must help a woman (Berry) uncover the secrets that could save human life.

The Hangups:

  • Interwoven: The concept of this movie is that most of the actors appear in all of the segments, and to make that work, there’s going to be some bending of identities. The filmmakers avoid direct “Blackface” but they do cast white performers as Asians, Asians as Latinos, and Halle Berry as a white women. There’s also men playing women and women playing men, and a lot of make up on famous people. Films are often built on conceits, and the heart of this movie is that conceit. If you can’t get past the idea that the film works best if you embrace the pageantry, the idea that… yes Hugo Weaving looks a little silly as an Asian man, then this movie won’t work for you, but to focus on that is to miss the point. It was more important to have the same actors go through centuries of human history than to have culturally correct actors playing those roles. If you can’t understand the why, then the film is not for you.

The Great:

  • Ideology: Movies have often tried to show karma and interconnectedness in ways that often feel trite and stupid. What the Wachowski’s and Tykwer have done here is widened the view so it doesn’t feel like a microcosm, but the world entire. Are we as people doomed to make the same mistakes over and over, is there a sense that though the times change, that people don’t? All the big questions are there (that don’t reflect on man’s relationship with God), and this film is a film about these questions, and is a meditation on those beliefs. It is ultimately a positive portrait, but by intercutting these six narratives – in one of the great instances of cross cutting in cinema history – there is a tremendous build about what goes right and wrong in life, and how so many choices are about how kindness (or the lack thereof) set off chain reactions in life. This sounds hippy-dippy, but it works in context. And – for better or worse – this is a lot of what the Wachowski’s were getting at in The Matrix sequels, and is very connected to Tykwer’s breakthrough film Run Lola Run. It is an auteurs piece.

The Good:

  • Editing: Telling six stories at once is a nightmare, and it requires a sure hand at plotting. How the narratives hit crescendos, how they all work together in symphony (and this is a symphony) is gorgeous, but also how that allows us to reflect them against each other.  Hugo Weaving talked about how his overarching character eventually turns into the evil voice inside your head, which explains why Jim Broadbent’s main story gains such prominence. In one narrative he’s a complete jerk, and helps ruin someone’s life, so when he’s attempting to escape an old folks home, it’s his penance. Not all roles line up as nearly, but that’s the fun of unpacking this movie.
  • Cohesion: This shouldn’t work. With three directors, two cinematographers, and three composers with so much to do, it’s a miracle it all feels of a piece. But Cloud Atlas comes across as a singular vision and everything works together. It works together so well you can’t imagine taking out a piece.

The Bad:

  • All or Nothing: Though there are people who will have mixed reactions, Cloud Atlas is an act of passion and love, and we went with it all the way. It’s a heartfelt work of great technical precision, but it’s one of those films that could do little business stateside, could be ignored by the Academy, and could be summarily dismissed at the end of the year. But it’s also the sort of film that lasts. And ten or fifteen years from now, when Argo or The Avengers are seen as good or films that’s popularity reflected the period that they were made, Cloud Atlas is the sort of film that some people (but not all people) will have to talk about at length. They will champion. They’ll hold dear. And that’s worth a lot.

Overall:

If you love movies, this is the sort of film you have to see. It may not be for you, but it’s not something that can be easily dismissed, and it deserves to be dissected. Hats off the to filmmakers for pulling it off, getting it made, and never compromising.

The Rating: 9.7/10

Photo Gallery:

Trailer:

Cloud Atlas opens October 26.