Cloud Atlas: Future Cult Classic?


I had no idea going into Cloud Atlas that it would become my favorite movie of the year. It caught me entirely by surprise, as the best things do. Initially, I was hesitant about seeing the movie, through no fault of its own. No, in this case the blame belongs to me because I broke my cardinal rule (and I’ve done it again recently with Zero Dark Thirty–we’ll see how that turns out): Never EVER read reviews before seeing the movie. As with almost anything that’s worth closer examination, opinions were divided. Most everyone agreed Cloud Atlas was thrilling, engaging, thoroughly cinematic, but perhaps a little too grandiose, perhaps a little too intricate. Would the everyday moviegoer be able to keep up with all its twists and subplots and characters? In my experience, yes, yes, and yep. I had the advantage as a movie buff, able to recognize most of the actors, including relative unknowns (compared to the likes of Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, that is) like Ben Whishaw and Jim Sturgess in each of their roles, but the friend I went with to the movie has what people call “a life” so it took her some time to discern certain characters. After the first half hour of what-the-heck-is-going-on, she admitted everything began to come together nicely.  And that’s the beauty of the movie, folks. At its core–and this will sound cliche, but so what, it’s true–Cloud Atlas is a journey. You simply can’t start out knowing the way. For it to be truly enjoyable, you have to let go and just experience. Clarity and understanding will come soon, but later.

Awe, fortunately, is immediate. John Toll (of Braveheart and Legends of the Fall fame) and Frank Griebe (director Tom Tykwer‘s go-to cinematographer) beautifully achieved what must’ve been a difficult feat, but seems rather effortless: guiding us through colonized Chatham Islands, futuristic Seoul (here called Neo Seoul), and lush rain forests somewhere in dystopian America. Commendably, even with two cinematographers and three directors (Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tykwer), the film is amazingly uniform on the whole, never once feeling messy or scatterbrained. Layered, yes. Broad and wide-ranging, definitely. But you won’t ever feel as though you’re watching six films.

James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw in my favorite scene from “Cloud Atlas”

The movie opens with an elderly, one-eyed Tom Hanks, whose narrative frames the story (and I think it’s safe to say it is one STORY). He’s going to tell us about the time he met the devil, and with that, we’re spiraled into a sequence that lands us smack dab in the middle or rather at the climax of each of the six storylines. And I’ll give you a key so as to aid your first viewing. Essentially, Cloud Atlas spins the tale of one soul recycled over the centuries into the bodies of Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Halle BerryJim BroadbentDoona Bae and finally Tom Hanks. To tell you anything else would not be confusing so much as it would do a great disservice to the film. It’s better to discover than to be told. I will say that this one soul, reincarnated into various different characters, distinguished not by race or gender but a comet-shaped birthmark, encounters good and evil in every life (duh), but seriously, this I think, the filmmakers owe a great deal of their success. These stories aren’t just held together by the soul, but by the soul’s eternal struggle against that more acceptable form of evil, that which seeks to prey upon the defenseless in the name of natural selection.  Repeated throughout the film is the mantra of the wicked: “The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”

In that sense, the story is rather simple. It’s a fight against the powers that be; but the characters are rather more complicated. The soul itself is never evil, opportunistic, yes–at least twice–cowardly, too–at least three times–though never for long. Ultimately, we see each soul reconcile with a cruel reality and stand up in the face of almost certain failure. Some triumph, others do not.

Ben Whishaw in “Cloud Atlas”

Now whether you agree with the philosophy behind all this up to you, though it’s not at all necessary to. Personally, I’m not as sure about reincarnation as I am about the overlapping threads of the human experience. While courage and overcoming “the system” may be the overarching theme, on a much smaller scale the film runs the gambit of human emotion: love, friendship, loss, freedom, hope. Each of the actors bring  life to their respective characters, some with more nuance than others. Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw are undoubtedly standouts. Sturgess shines twice, first as Adam Ewing, the young lawyer traveling to the Chatham Islands and later as Chang from the Neo Seoul storyline; while Whishaw claims the film’s most heartbreaking character and most beautiful performance as Robert Frobisher, the bisexual amanuensis to a famous British composer. It’s Whishaw who gets some of the film’s best lines. “After all, a half-read book is a half-finished love affair,” he says while I squeal in the background. And my personal favorite, “I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I’ll be waiting for you there.” Speaking of dear old Sixsmith, the award for most effortless difficult performance goes to James D’Arcy, as Frobisher’s lover and Archivist (also from the Neo Seoul storyline). Overall, he has few lines throughout the film, but both performances, while subtle and measured, rank among the film’s most memorable. Hugh Grant  and Hugo Weaving do nicely as different manifestations of evil incarnate, and David Gyasi is immensely watchable–commanding the screen–as the slave who becomes friends with Adam Ewing’s character.

Jim Sturgess in “Cloud Atlas”

Story or substance-wise, the film might have polarized critics, but the general consensus is that Cloud Atlas is a technical masterpiece. The cinematography, as I said, is colorful and vivid, every other frame striking, from the most common, though admittedly poignant occurrence–like the sun setting over a gorgeous blue ocean–to an exquisitely shot dream sequence where Whishaw and D’Arcy lean back, arms wide open as a cascade of porcelain crashes around them.  The score, composed by Tom Tykwer and his usual musical team Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, is distilled perfection, epic, encapsulating all the stories into one ambitious, soaring ode to hope and love and all those indescribable things that make life worth living. The fact that neither it nor the score for Beasts of the Southern Wild were nominated for an Oscar this year, is amazing. In a bad way.  Decide for yourself.

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