Beautiful and thought-provoking, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a thinking man’s epic
I don’t envy the folks in the Warner Bros. press office, tasked with marketing Cloud Atlas for general consumption. Based on one of those “unfilmable” novels (another, The Life of Pi, comes out next month — so much for impossibility), Cloud Atlas spans centuries, telling six parallel stories that prove their interconnectedness with gimmicky (but effective casting) while juggling a half-dozen set-ups, a half-dozen climaxes, sets of characters, denouements and everything else that comes with telling one tale, magnified six-fold. One story is a seafaring adventure yarn; one a sci-fi; one a post-apocalyptic allegory; one a farce; one a thriller. Good luck keeping them straight.
And yet, that’s completely possible, thanks to Lana and Andy Warshowski and Tom Tykwer, the co-directors and co-writers of this gargantuan and epic undertaking, a massive stab at serious filmmaking that you almost never see anymore outside the confines of an HBO miniseries. Cloud Atlas isn’t a perfect film, and indeed it has some notable flaws; but it is also the first truly great film of 2012, and one of the most serious efforts ever made at making a $100 million blockbuster that requires its audience to think as much as it feels.
It would be difficult to recommend someone attending Cloud Atlas on a first date, or after a heavy dinner involving wine, because the film demands to be addressed with the same seriousness with which is has been made. Thankfully, there are still folks out there willing to finance expensive movies by talented and intelligent filmmakers about serious ideas.
It helps to be the Warshowskis, the sibling filmmakers (Lana, formerly Larry, may be the first trans woman to helm a huge Hollywood film) responsible for The Matrix series. The first of those films was as smart and revolutionary as Cloud Atlas is: A breathtaking ride through the mind that touches on issues of destiny, spirituality and the power of rebellious thinking without getting mired on the gooey slog of navelgazing smugness. (That didn’t come until the second and third Matrix films.) It does so by rushing (though, at three hours, it may not seem so) through the complex interplay of stories joined together by slender threads — a disc of lapis, a mysterious manifesto, a haunting symphony.
In 1849, a fortune-seeker (Tom Hanks, almost unrecognizable under certain-to-win-the-Oscar makeup) forages a Pacific Island beach for evidence of cannibals from millennia past; 1,000 years later, cannibals terrorize villagers (including Hanks, again) in post-nuclear winter Hawaii. A gay composer (Ben Whishaw) writes letters to his love in 1930s England, recounting his efforts to compose a musical masterpiece; in 1973, his ex-lover (James D’Arcy) debates whether to become a whistleblower to an investigative reporter (Halle Berry). On and on continues these echoes upon echoes, with the directors elegantly linking the disparate timelines visually (the photography and special effects as constantly breathtaking as The Matrix), aurally and with quintuple casting of all the principals.
If the concept sounds slightly fake, well, occasionally, it is. You do spend a more-than-usual amount of time playing “spot the star under the prosthetic nose.” But in the end, not only does it serve the film’s motifs, it also keeps your mind alert. And when the actors are this good — Broadbent (emphasis on the “broad”) hams it up deliciously; Whishaw and D’Arcy make the gay love story profoundly moving; Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant have a ball as assorted villains — you can forgive it. Cloud Atlas lives up to its name, mapping the ineffability of humanity in a compendium of genuine vignettes. Prepare to be wowed.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 26, 2012.