Cloud Atlas ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, David Gyasi, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, and Hugh Grant
Written by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer (screenplay), based on the novel by David Mitchell
Directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
*Note- this review contains excerpts from a previous, shorter review of the film I completed in 2013.
“Our lives and our choices, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction. Yesterday my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Fear, belief, love, phenomena that determined the course of our lives. These forces begin long before we are born and continue long after we perish. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. I feel like something important has happened to me. Is this possible?” – Cloud Atlas, author David Mitchell
Is it rational to think that right now, writing this review, I have been influenced by a decision made three hundred years ago? Is it rational to think that my praise of this film may, somehow, effect an individual hundreds of years from now? Of course not, but Cloud Atlas is not about rational, logical thought, nor is it a standard film. If I have interpreted the film accurately, it is about possibility, dreams, risk, chance, fate, our connection to each other, and the inherent responsibility of our choices. It is about how our actions, small as they may be, can have a ripple effect on people, places, and things. Rarely does a film come along that actually makes the connection between ethereal, spiritual thought and precision film making, yet Cloud Atlas, with its’ sublime color pallet, rousing score, and honest delivery, now exists as the supreme triumph of both in my eyes.
I’ll try my best to elaborate. When a work of art speaks to you on a deep, personal and emotional level, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue its’ merit. Cloud Atlas is the prime example of that conundrum for me. It may just be the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I don’t believe for a moment that I can sway a regular moviegoer to my way of thinking. What I can say is that three directors collaborated to create a deeply soulful, spiritual film, spanning all genres, inspiring all emotions, and touching on all of the things I love about seeing a movie. It is perhaps the most unusual film of our time- it seemingly came from nowhere, had an extended trailer, opened wide in both 2-D and 3-D, defied convention, bombed at the domestic box office, and practically begged viewers to see it as multiple copies collected shelf dust. I simply ask that you keep in mind my absolute bias for the film as you read, and know that I cannot convince you that this is the best film of all time. I’m simply quite comfortable in my assertion that it is.
Cloud Atlas could have been an expensive disaster, making no sense and cementing (in my head) that the films of the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run and The International) are no longer appointment viewings. Instead, this beautiful and occasionally brutal film exceeded my expectations, in both tone and execution. The broad story spans roughly 600 years, from the days of seafaring clippers to a possible post-apocalyptic future. From a sick lawyer that tries to overcome his inherent racism to a grandfather finally able to find ease with his tumultuous life, we’re treated to a multitude of relationships, past, present, and future. A journalist strikes up a relationship with a scientist, and in the process uncovers a massive threat. An understudy to a great musician puts music to his words, creating the timeless title sound. A genetically engineered waitress breaks code and inspires the world as a result of the kindness of a rebellious stranger. A post-apocalyptic forager must overcome his hallucinations and simple upbringing to get humanity to connect again. How the directors were able to weave this plethora of storylines and characters together and still have it make narrative sense, I’ll never know. What I do know is that it works, just like a random collection of notes strings together to form a symphony. What this symphony wants to tell us is that the evil of then is the evil of now, and in the future. The love of then, now, and in the future is the same. It is simply up to us to find our common threads, learn from them, and decide which true fate we want for ourselves and humanity.
A film like Cloud Atlas can be misunderstood as perhaps too philosophical, or asking too much of its’ audience, which leads to the unfortunate label of ‘pretentious’. The problem with applying that specific label on this film is that an actual pretentious film may try to affect what isn’t there. The directors of Cloud Atlas, whilst exhibiting most of the qualities you might find in pretentious filmmakers, aren’t. I mean no disrespect of course, but I’m of the belief that they simply haven’t shown themselves to be nuanced enough with their on-screen work to be aware that what they’re doing could be pretentious. They’re all bombastic heart and soul, a mindset that doesn’t lend itself to pretentious results. It may lead to failed results (see Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix Revolutions, Speed Racer, The International), but even with those films, I appreciated their completely dedicated and earnest results. Everything they have is on-screen, and they seem to love it, even if we might not. If you can fault them for anything, it would be a lack of focus. I’ll take that over sheer pretentiousness any day.
I often worry, like the Wachowskis might, that I am pretentious. I often wonder that I may want to be so that my opinion somehow matters. The reality, instead, is that I simply have something in common with the directors of Cloud Atlas. We’re cinematic soul mates. I am content to be thought foolish, willing to wear my heart on my sleeve, outside opinions be damned (even if it may secretly hurt a bit). I’m always prepared to enjoy an incomplete, or perhaps a metaphysical idea of a film, provided that I’m able to draw conclusions and enjoy the experience. Cloud Atlas has gaps, and asks us to bear with it as we see an awful-toothed Tom Hanks in one era, then as a neo-language spouting future woodsman. It asks us to step outside of our comfort zone and accept that a piece of music may link people hundreds of years apart. It asks us to accept a possible near future in which the neon hues and wardrobe choices of a progressive Asian culture dominate the landscape. This kind of free-range boldness is incredibly endearing and rare, and I rode that wave through the film’s humbling conclusion.
I would ask the skeptical to allow for the possibility that what happens in this film could be a reality. If you can separate the rigidity of our regular lives and the realities that we’re ingrained with in this world, Cloud Atlas can stir that sense of hope and purpose within you. I feel it gives a voice and a narrative for what I believe is missing in many of our lives- a connection to the universe, and some meaning to what we do. In other words, it does for me what organized religion maybe should do. Interestingly enough, I’ve found myself not standing alone with my love for the film, and my thoughts for it. Those that like this film appear to share a kindred spirit, and an optimistic outlook on what we as a species could do. I say this being fully aware that I’m placing these opinions and feelings on the film, and it is altogether plausible that the original author and the directors had no intention of speaking to us as I’ve interpreted. I’m not buying that for a moment, however.
Cloud Atlas is too soulful, too all-encompassing an emotional tale to simply be meant as a popcorn film. Consider the fictional “Cloud Atlas Sextet”, as it has been wonderfully imagined in the film by composers Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and Tykwer himself. Imagine it as a tangible, audible thing that we can hear, a real thread of sound that permeates time and space. Think of what a thing of beauty it would be, how that shared connection can link all of us together, our decisions, or triumphs and failures, our ups and downs, and how it would mirror the greatest of symphonies, the most resonant of sounds. It is a timeless piece, something I would never tire of hearing, as if the memories of a thousand souls were wrapped up in the single stroke of a piano key or the bow of a violin. I love this film, for everything it says to me, and for what I hope it will say to others once they see it. Perhaps my words will encourage you to be of a certain mind when you watch it, perhaps not. If nothing else, my hope is that viewers allow the film to wash over them, and not give in to the pessimism and preconceived notions of what a ‘Wachowski’ film might be. You may be pleasantly surprised.