Following Cloud Atlas, viewers will invariably find themselves armed with a variety of useful adjectives to describe the film in a single word: grand, towering, epic, inspiring, heartbreaking, heartwarming, hodgepodge. But in adapting David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name, siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have created a singular, unique work that majestically shrugs off attempts at quick, careless classification. Cloud Atlas is a cinematic medley of narratives connected together through time and space, driven by a sense of enterprise and purpose, and defined by its advocacy of basic, simple morality and human compassion; fitting the film into traditional categories would not be unlike forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Those exact qualities, in turn, render Cloud Atlas an enormously difficult film to succinctly and easily write about in a review format. It’s a film that on a single screening encourages rambling more than concise, focused analysis. It’s also a reminder of how good the Wachowskis can be at the height of their powers, though that does a disservice to Tykwer’s contributions as their partner in artful blockbusting crime. In fact, if I can offer any statement that communicates the essence Cloud Atlas precisely, it’s that the film happens to be the big, ambitious, idea-driven blockbuster the year has been missing. Forget the spectacle-oriented pictures of the summer, some of which do admittedly mine astounding value from their whiz-bang proclivities; Cloud Atlas operates on such sincere, emotional levels that all instances of eye candy end up reading as incidentally necessary. They exist to support theme, rather than the other way around.
But the question of what, exactly Cloud Atlas actually is still remains. It is not a film into which futuristic gun fights figure heavily, but one in which they inevitably must occur. It’s not a chronicle of corporate espionage and intrigue, yet just such a story serves as one of its many through-lines. And it’s not a yarn about a post-apocalyptic world that resembles a future we may be heading toward, although that particular thread serves as as a bookend to the entire presentation. The most straightforward way of conveying the “stuff” of Cloud Atlas to others is to paint it as a non-linear sequence of vignettes which all explore the same concepts and motifs, but even that’s a shortchange.
Because ultimately, Cloud Atlas‘ strength doesn’t lie in its verve and daring so much as its nuance in craftsmanship. Linking together six disparate narratives over the course of a near-three-hour running time, and weaving them together with perfect cohesion are two different feats; the Wachowskis and Tykwer effortlessly succeed in the latter, far trickier endeavor, and that’s where Cloud Atlas finds its worth. For its scope, scale, and boldness, the film’s true spirit houses itself comfortably in the thematic realms that lie between and beneath every second of lush visual extravagance.
The more amazing accomplishment, then, may be that those subtler, quieter properties nevertheless assert themselves firmly in the plot even when the film ascends the highest peaks of sensory indulgence. Cloud Atlas peddles such elementary messages as “love and friendship conquer all”, “treat others the way you want to be treated”, and “be kind to people”, common sense axioms for living life that are so obviously fundamental that the opulent, enormous packaging they’re wrapped up in threatens to drown them out entirely. Yet that doesn’t happen; Cloud Atlas maintains its ideals at its forefront, and delivers them to its audience in big, powerful, affecting ways across its sextet of interrelated stories.
From the Chatham Islands in the 1850s, to 1930s Belgium, to 1970s San Francisco, to a rough approximation of the present set in England, to a dystopic near future we experience in “Neo-Seoul”, to the primitive world formed by an unnamed global disaster in a much more distant future, Cloud Atlas‘ reach is long. That’s the film’s challenge to its directing team, though: finding anchoring characteristics that resonate and afford the film an affirming sense of continuity. The Wachowskis and Tykwer answer the call with deft skill, tying together each of the innumerable threads that comprise its complex skein with an exacting cohesion. Some of the tools they employ to that end are physical, a diary here or a journal there that’s birthed in one era and harmlessly crops up in another; others are invisible, recurring motifs and scenarios that ripple across time and space– battles against injustice and corruption, portrayals of the weak triumphing over the strong.
The cast, of course, may be the strongest, or at least most notable, binding force Cloud Atlas possesses. Much has been made in the film’s marketing campaign about the presence of Hollywood luminaries like Tom Hanks and Halle Barry, but no matter how many recognizable names Cloud Atlas can claim to its credit, it’s actually a different breed of ensemble, one whose interpretation of “performance” gives the contributions of every actor an essential vitality. They shoulder anywhere between three and six roles apiece, appearing in each of the film’s timelines with either bluntly exposed obviousness (Hugo Weaving as a Nurse Ratched type) or total invisibility (none of which I’ll shed light on, because the surprise of realization is nothing short of a delight); when the disguises work, they’re seamless, and when they don’t they’re jarring, but that’s absolutely germane to the point Cloud Atlas makes.
That point, of course, is made as loudly and brilliantly as possible, with reserves of breathtaking flare and style to assail your attention. We’re all connected, or so the film argues, but the method of debate used to make that point can only be described as harmoniously aggressive. But that’s the joy of Cloud Atlas; the Wachowskis and Tykwer go big, bigger than that, bigger still, and with no fear for the repercussions of their magniloquence. It’s impossible not to respect the fact that they’re working without a safety net no matter how one reacts to the film’s eccentricities and quirks, but Cloud Atlas is so earnestly intentioned and uncompromisingly visionary that it seems equally impossible that one could walk away from it and deem it a failure.