Few films that are released these days can be regarded as truly risky, and even the ones that are, often fail critically and commercially by their very nature. However, Cloud Atlas is one of the few examples that succeeds in both areas. Not only is it visually and technically stunning, but it tells a human story of transcendence, reincarnation, belief, freedom, oppression and love.
Cloud Atlas features six different stories that are separated by time period and setting but are deeply connected thematically: a tale of slavery on-board a sailing ship in the 1880s, the tragedy of a homosexual musician in the 1930s, a political thriller following a journalist in 1970, a strange tale about a publisher in 2012, a rebellion against a dystopian government in 2144 and finally a far future story about fear, survival and the destiny of all humankind. They all feel completely different from each other, both in subject matter and visual style, and yet it’s instantly apparent which story is which. There is very little confusion, which given the nature of the film is an achievement in itself.
Despite the film’s length, it also never gets boring. Most of the stories are extremely compelling in their own individual ways, and they all feel complete, substantial and could easily carry a film on their own. The only weak story is the one set in 2012; it takes an unexpected, silly and rather farfetched turn about half way through. The other five stories are all really well told however, and the interconnectivity between them is genius. Story-wise, Cloud Atlas is inspiring, engaging, funny, and occasionally heart-breaking.
Discussing the acting is difficult, because every member of the large cast plays multiple roles. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are arguably the leads, and they both do great jobs. Jim Broadbent gives a really good performance, and it was really good to see Keith David have a pretty sizable supporting role. Hugh Grant plays his villain parts with a suitably unsettling menace. Hugo Weaving is fine, but he was given very typical villain roles. Jim Sturgiss and Doona Bae, both relative newcomers, handle lead roles extremely well. James D’Arcy is completely engaging as a character whose life spans two of the stories.
However, the standout is undoubtedly Ben Whishaw, who infuses the struggling homosexual musician with a vulnerability that contrasts with (or rather compliments) his fervent belief in liberty for all. The final moments of his particular story are incredibly poignant thanks in no small part to him. His performance in Cloud Atlas just exemplifies the fact that he is going to have an amazing career.
The fact that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer split the directing duties for each of the stories among them is very interesting, for while they are all visually distinct, there is a definite sense of unity in style. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and feels very organic and natural, despite the fact that there are a great number of visual effects shots. The CGI is by no means photorealistic, but it remains beautiful nonetheless, and the fact that the effects aren’t life-like adds to the stylised reality; the sunsets are saturated with colour and the immense dystopian skyline of Neo Seoul is striking with its neon. Despite the heavy use of digital effects, there is a great deal of practical filmmaking as well – the mountainous landscapes used in the far future story look absolutely amazing and were clearly filmed mostly on location, and the set design in the period settings is unrivalled.
One particular directorial technique that is brilliantly used is the repetition of motifs and objects from one story segment to the next, which not only helps ease the transition for the audience but also emphasises the interconnected themes of all of the different tales. The music is a delightful mixture of simple pianos, big orchestral numbers and electronic, beat-driven tracks, but once again the different styles are incorporated together in a way that makes the soundtrack feel like a cohesive, effective whole.
Don’t be intimidated by the length or complexity of Cloud Atlas; if you let yourself go while watching you will have a totally unique cinematic experience, which is a rare thing in this day and age. The directors have managed to craft an intricate, stylised and engaging film that expertly weaves six stories together in ways that only multiple viewings will reveal. The acting is fantastic across the board, and it’s admirable that all of these actors were able to handle such different roles with the same level of commitment and skill. The cinematography is beautiful and regularly jaw-dropping, the set design in the period settings is top notch and the CGI in the future is of similar high quality.
But the true value of Cloud Atlas lies in the way that a thematically resonant, cohesive message is conveyed through this multiplicity of different stories; a message of hope, faith, love, oppression, freedom, escape, sacrifice, art, and transcendence, but ultimately the idea that everything is connected and our actions can have far-reaching consequences in time and space.