REVIEW: 'Cloud Atlas'

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Cloud Atlas is a profoundly puzzling movie. Not simply because it weaves together six separate narratives, or that many of its actors play five or six characters throughout those stories. No, it goes beyond that. Cloud Atlas defies attempts to categorize it, or even evaluate it. Very rarely do I come out of a movie and have no idea whether I liked it or not. That’s what happened with this film, and it was both a powerful and frustrating experience.

Cloud Atlas’ three directors, Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, aimed to adapt the acclaimed source novel by David Mitchell. To do so, they tried to redefine the rules of filmmaking. Any movie with such an ambitious scope is bound to trip up along the way. But even when the film did stumble, I stayed with it, because I sensed that movies like this don’t come along very often. Cloud Atlas may test your patience, but the film rewards it in the end.

There’s little use trying to offer a synopsis of the movie. Many of the actors – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw and Hugo Weaving – play five or six characters each. They appear in stories spanning hundreds of years; from a Pacific sailing voyage in the nineteenth century to a lush island in a post-apocalyptic twenty-fourth century. Connecting these two points is a web of life-changing encounters,  reuniting people who seem to be living out a series of reincarnations.

The concept that all these people are connected is the constant theme of the film. Characters always find time to mention how they feel tied to previous or future events. One woman in a futuristic Korea intones that “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present.” Unfortunately, the directors seem afraid to let the audience figure that out for themselves. There’s only so many times we can hear the “connectedness” refrain before it makes even the most complex sections feel monotonous.

This is where Cloud Atlas is at its least subtle. By the mid-way point, you’ll be saying, “Fine, I get it already.” But there’s something about the beautiful cinematography and the occasionally rapid-fire cutting between stories that draws you in. We spend a few moments advancing one story, and then flash to another. If nothing else, the fact that the movie waits until the end to resolve all six stories should keep you interested – but you might need to take notes to keep everything straight.

One concern I have about recommending Cloud Atlas is whether the movie works on the first viewing. Some films, like those of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorcese or Christopher Nolan, are entertaining and engrossing the first time you see them. Then, as you revisit the movies, you appreciate them even more.  Cloud Atlas probably requires at least a second viewing, if not a third, before you can truly say you’ve “seen” it. The question is whether you feel like devoting that kind of time to it.

I believe the movie is worth the time. Even though the six stories twist around and interrupt each other, there’s a paradoxical kind of freedom about Cloud Atlas. Much like the last film I saw, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, this film is not restricted by the expectations of a typical narrative. There is no standard hero’s journey to be found, even as the characters’ “souls” transition between timelines. Stories like this are difficult to find in modern movies, and I think they should be celebrated.

If ever there was a film that deserved the description “Greater than the sum of its parts”, it would be Cloud Atlas. Inevitably, you’ll like some of the stories better than others, but the film wouldn’t be same if you took any of the pieces away. I liked the 2346 and 2012 stories the most; you might have your own favourites.  But I’m looking forward to my next chance to watch them all together, and take another shot at decoding this cosmic, cinematic mystery. Cloud Atlas gets four stars out of four.

What did you think of Cloud Atlas? Were you blown away by its huge scope and its challenging script? Or was it simply too much for you? What kind of reputation do you think the movie will have? Let me know in the comments section. If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and browse through some of my other movie reviews here:

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Recent Releases:

Seven Psychopaths | ArgoLooper | Lawless

Reviews of Classic Movies:

Doctor Zhivago | Dirty Harry | Rope | The Graduate

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