Cloud Atlas (Multiple Reviews)


Terence Johnson (****)

Watching movies can provide you a range of experiences. There are films that make you question them, films that are just for enjoyment and films that make you feel. While a certain studio has coined the latter for most of its Oscar fare, those films barely scratch the surface of the power that film has. Cloud Atlas, the mesmerizing film from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, is a cinematic force of nature that jolts you out of your reverie and gives you reaffirmation of what it means to live. Tracking six  storylines that span from the 1850s to sometime around 2250, this film effortlessly blends the separate, yet interconnected parts, into an incredible whole.

There’s so much to enjoy about Cloud Atlas, thanks in large part to the narrative that forces you to pay attention. Thankfully the themes of the movie make it simple for you to follow along, even when you crosscut between eras. It’s a feat that this film can use both non-traditional framing, extensive voice over, and interrogation scenes and still be engaging and watchable. Even though the film throws virtually every framing device at you, the story hums along and the spectacle feels earned, due to the attention of detail put into the script.

The below the line techs in this movie are top-notch, led by John Toll’s cinematography. The film is so lush, it’s amazing the images they were able to capture from the various periods in the movie. Toll and the directors found some fascinating ways to shoot the action scenes in the film. The Wachowski’s and Tykwer have always managed comprehensive action scenes but there are instances in the film, like Halle Berry’s car crash, where the camera work could have been mishandled but it was beautifully streamlined.

The film is edited and connected so flawlessly, it’s no wonder Warner Bros. didn’t harp on the contractual running time.  Alexander Berner was handed a monumental task, editing a narratively complex film that was being filmed by two different units at the same time. What he was able to do with simple juxtaposition of frames and cuts was better than 95% of summer action blockbusters.

Of course the biggest selling point of the film is the actors playing different roles. It’s always thrilling to see actors stretching themselves and many of the joys in this movie are derived from seeing the actors in weird makeup or trying to spot the actors in different eras. Sometimes they are playing real people, sometimes they show up in photographs but they’re present at all times, allowing for the theme of inter-connectivity to really sink in. This is truly an ensemble picture, with the “weakest” links being the two lead performances.  Halle Berry’s main role as a reporter trying to uncover a scope and Tom Hanks’ as a tribesman struggling with faith provide some great meat for the two actors, but their star wattage slightly hinders them from being the MVP of the film.

The standouts were Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae. If Lars von Trier ever decided to turn his gaze to men or McQueen need another actor to put through the ringer, Whishaw should be first in line because no one plays a tortured tragic soul like him. He’s mastered the art of playing characters who find joy only to have bad things happen, but Whishaw is so damn charismatic that even when his story in Cloud Atlas reaches its tragic crescendo you never pity him.  Doona Bae’s performance is one that surprised me and gave me the greatest thrill to watch. As the virtual unknown (even though she was in The Host), she was a wild card among the cast and she delivers a great performance when you consider a big portion of it is told through interrogation. Her turn from simple server to self-aware woman is fascinating to behold and incredibly uplifting  She’s got such a strong presence on-screen and conveys so much with a single tear or her vocal inflections.

Those two performances really help signify the type of gravitas the film is dealing with. By the time this film ended, I was a mess of emotions, and I actually cried on the way home, something I’ve never done before, during or after watching a movie. After spending almost three hours concentrating on figuring out the narrative and trying to spot the actors, my guard had been torn down and in its place was an emotional conundrum that I couldn’t shake. It wasn’t the tragedy that befalls a few characters or the euphoric highs some of them reach, but every emotion thrown together. I’ve never felt so alive, so in touch with humanity than I did after finishing this movie. Cloud Atlas that type of film, one that gets under your skin, breaks down your walls and sends your spirit soaring to the heavens reaffirming what it really means to have lived a life on earth and how we are all connected in some way, shape or form.

I’m not necessarily sure what possessed the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer to make this movie, but I’m glad they did.  Everyone should be running to go see this film, if not only to support ambitious filmmaking, but to commune with life.

Joey Magidson (***)

There are moments in ‘Cloud Atlas’ that frankly are sure to blow your mind and take your breath away. There are also moments that will make you scratch or shake your head. Thus is the nature of this ambitious new film from the trio of Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer. Their adaptation of the supposedly un-filmmable David Mitchell novel of the same name is a cinematic firework and a testament to the lengths that some can take the medium. Featuring no less than 13 major actors with multiple parts over a half dozen different time periods, this is about as high concept and visionary as movies get. It’s definitely a flawed film, but the sheer gusto of it all helps to power it through. I had a few more issues than I would have liked to have had with the flick, but when it opens on Friday I expect a fair amount of people to be completely stunned. I’d even wager that someone’s new favorite film of all time is contained within. I can also see plenty of people absolutely hating it. For me, it’s a step down from the top tier films of 2012, and it’s definitely not up the Academy’s alley, but I can’t stop myself from recommending it a bit more strongly than I would in your average 3 star review. It’s something special, I’ll give it that. I just wish that it was an exceptional film overall, not merely just a good one. Hampered by uneven pacing and an occasional lack of an emotional connection to the material but propelled by some stunning visuals, ‘Cloud Atlas’ flirts with greatness.

What’s the plot you ask? Oh boy. Well, sit tight as I try to give a simple explanation for what’s going on in the flick. The film is intercut between the years 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2346, with most of the actors playing different yet connected parts in each of them and a different genre essentially being portrayed with each time period. Chronologically, we begin in 1849 with attorney Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) on a boat in the Pacific dealing with a doctor (Tom Hanks) treating his illness and the moral conviction of whether or not to assist a slave named Autua (David Gyasi). This choice sets up a decision that is felt throughout the years. Next we move to Scotland in 1936 to follow Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw), who leaves his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) to make a name for himself as a composer. He becomes an apprentice to the renowned Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) but looks to strike out on his own with a symphony he’s going to call “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”. From there we go to 1973 and San Francisco, where journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating corporate corruption at a nuclear power plant run by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). She’s initially helped by an older Sixsmith, as well as plant employee Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks). Her determination puts her into the crosshairs of a hitman named Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving), and she’s forced to trust one of Hook’s employees, a man named Napier (Keith David). We jump again into the future to England in 2012, as publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) goes from dealing with thug-like writer Dermot Hoggins (Hanks) to trying to escape from gangsters. He goes to his brother Denholme (Grant) and sister-in-law Georgette (Wishaw), but that leads to even more complications. Another time jump leaves us in Neo Seoul in 2144. It’s a dystopian future where genetically engineered fabricant Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) slowly goes from a thoughtless existence as a restaurant server to independent being with the assistance of revolutionary Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess). Finally, we end up in the year 2321 (which then moves to 2346) in Hawaii “After the Fall”. Primitive goat herder Zachry (Hanks), who lives in a small village with the likes of Abbess (Susan Sarandon) and mostly just worries about being slaughtered by the cannibal warrior Kona (Grant). That all changes though with the arrival of Meronym (Berry), a Prescient from an advanced human community. If you can believe it, that’s just the bare bones for each segment, and they crash into each other in very interesting ways. Each of those cast members also shows up in the segments they don’t headline, sometimes only in cameos, but they all have a reason to be there.

The entire cast is uniformly good, if without a distinct best in show/Oscar contender in the lot. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry both have some of the stronger moments in the film, but they also are victims of not being able to disappear fully into their roles on occasion. The most consistent of the group are Doona Bae and Ben Wishaw, though neither ever particularly wowed me. Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon get the leas to do, though Grant seems to be having the most fun of anyone. Jim Broadbent, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving are very solid as well, though I find myself thinking of them less than the others. Hanks and Berry are the closest thing to leads in the film, but they’re still just part of the ensemble that also includes the likes of the aforementioned David Gyasi, plus Xun Zhou, Robert Fyfe, Martin Wuttke, Brody Nicholas Lee, and many more. The focus is on Hanks and Berry, but Bae, Broadbent, and Wishaw get some time to shine as well. I wish someone had blown me away, but that wasn’t the case.

Befitting as unique a production as this one is, the direction is just as unique. You have 3 filmmakers essentially working in 2 teams to simultaneously work on different parts of the movie. It’s like dueling directors, except it’s actually a trio. Andy and Lana Wachowski directed the 1849, 2144, and 2321/2346 segments, while Tom Tykwer helmed the 1936, 1973, and 2012 segments. The Wachowski siblings thus worked more in the period piece and sci-fi realms, while Tykwer handled the more grounded and contemporary parts. They all co-wrote the film, based on David Mitchell’s novel, and there’s a symbiotic quality on display here that really helps the movie. There was a strong chance that this could feel like too many cooks in the kitchen, but that’s never the case. Some of the segments are more interesting than others, as well as more emotionally investing, but it’s not split between the filmmakers in any discernible way. My biggest issue is that the film feels its length at well over 2 and a half hours, which leads to a bloated feeling. There’s a big hump to get over during the second act, but it does all come together well in the end. The trio have some bumps along the way and need you to take a big leap of faith on their screenplay, but if you do, there’s a lot to like about their direction of the work.

In terms of Oscar potential, I think it’s a long shot for any of the majors, but the technical categories are definitely up for grabs. Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Makeup, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects categories could easily come calling, and I’d wager that Best Original Score might even be in play too if voters wind up fans of the movie. I think it might be too divisive to get much love, but 2 or 3 techs are perhaps a safe bet here.

‘Cloud Atlas’ is the type of film that rewards viewers on a scale that depends on how much you put into it. If you go see it this weekend with an open mind and an open heart, you’re much more likely to enjoy it than if you go in stubborn. I wasn’t bowled over, but I really appreciate what everyone was able to pull off here. Some will love it, some will hate, just like the critical word so far, and in this case I’m right in the middle of things. My thumb is up, but it’s not one of my absolute favorites of the year. I’m glad I saw it and really am overjoyed that movies like this are being made. In the end, ‘Cloud Atlas’ has moments of brilliance but those moments are sadly only fleeting.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!