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Cloud Atlas, adapted from a well-regarded 2004 novel, features a multitude of well-known actors portraying multiple characters across many varied, differing stories. It has comedy, drama, romance, and action – all the elements of a rousing good time. It has Tom Hanks with a cockney accent and Halle Berry as a futuristic science officer. It is the collaboration of the Wachowski’s (The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer) and German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), i.e. three filmmakers responsible for some pretty cool stuff. It is gorgeously shot, well edited, sprawling, and sparklingly epic. Cloud Atlas is one of the most interesting and ambitious films I’ve seen in quite some time, perhaps even ever. It is also a complete box office disaster, which is sad, but almost makes total sense unfortunately.
Cloud Atlas is a difficult film to classify and talk about. It is told with multiple stories across many different generations of characters intercut with each other. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant are its most well-known actors, but Ben Whishaw, James D’arcy, Doona Bae, and Jim Sturgess also star. Each actor is taxed to the maximum in Cloud Atlas, portraying multiple characters and breaking the lines of both gender and race (Hugo Weaving portrays a woman in one story and Jim Sturgess portrays a Korean man in another, for example). Each story has its own distinct style, with Jim Broadbent’s segments being broad comedy and Doona Bae’s being science fiction/action. Stories range from taking place in slavery-era America to the far off future, after a mysterious apocalyptic event ravages the planet. Each of the stories is interwoven brilliantly with each other, cutting in and out just as the action in one gets tense, almost like a cliffhanger in a television show. Unfortunately, not all of the stories work well on their own.
Cloud Atlas is, simply put, a big, beautiful mess. It isn’t difficult to see how this film has drawn heaps of critical praise from some and endless amounts of scorn from others. Though each of the actors here are talented, it was probably too much for them to portray the various roles in this way. Hanks is a brilliant and gifted actor, but even he can’t pull off everyone he plays with the high quality one would expect of a multiple Oscar winner. The same goes for Weaving, who is brilliant in some stories but middling in others. Berry ranges from pretty great (the Luisa Rey segments) to downright mediocre (the post-apocalyptic segments) across the various stories. Cloud Atlas is also complicated, and while its stories are not overly complex (some are fairly derivative of other properties actually – with one being somewhat similar in premise to Blade Runner), the structure of the movie is probably not something most filmgoers are going to appreciate.
I rather liked Cloud Atlas. It is far from perfect, but it has many heartfelt moments, asks interesting questions, makes just as many interesting observations, and is outright gorgeous to look at. I can’t imagine anyone ever thinking it had any commercial appeal, but it’ll find its cult eventually. It quite reminded me of Sunshine, another film with an international cast that ended up defying genre conventions and disappointing a vast majority of the film-going public. This is a rather complicated film – people have responded to it variously, and I totally understand that. Some of the segments in Cloud Atlas are just downright better than others, for example. The end product, however, is still pretty strong I feel. I cannot wait for the release of the Blu Ray so I can experience certain moments of it all over and over again. It’s a film that begs to be re-watched despite its nearly three hour run time; there’s just so much crammed into this film that it’s hard to not want to see it again. Not everything in Cloud Atlas works, but what does work ends up being pretty magnificent.