172 minutes of spectacular non-stop and passionate storytelling.
Cloud Atlas is based off a best-selling novel by David Mitchell which I have not read but many others have said that it was an adaptation that seemed to be very unfilmable due to the six stories that is told throughout many timelines. The label may be perhaps a myth because as I said in my Life of Pi review, anything no matter how perplexing the story came from, can be made into an enjoyable and successful film, with such examples like Lord of the Rings, Watchmen or to a certain extent American Psycho showing how a film may equal to its great reputation as the novel. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, famous for directing The Matrix trilogy and Run Lola Run, are very visual directors who couldn't resist the urge for indulgence in their films and regardless of how bad they are, that has always been their benefit. With Cloud Atlas, however, they have brought so much effort without the need to add any excess into adapting the novel, giving us one of the best 2012 has to offer and perhaps one of the most underrated films in recent memory.
We see Tom Hanks who plays an elderly Zachry telling six stories set in different eras, in which many of the central actors play multiple characters in each of them. The first one is set in 1869 where Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) rescues a dark skinned slave who can come aboard as one of the crew of the ship. The second film is set in 1934 where a young composer (Ben Whishaw) lives by his mentor's (Jim Broadbent) as he creates his original composition called the Cloud Atlas sextet while keeping a dark secret. Then in 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a journalist who investigates a conspiracy after being tipped off by a nuclear physicist Sixsmith (James D'Arcy). In the present, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent, again) is an elderly publisher who gets duped by his brother and has to escape from a retirement building runned by a nurse played by Hugo Weaving in drag. In Neo Seoul set in the future, Somni 451 (Doona Bae) a clone forced to become a waitress by a multi national corporation is rescued by Chang (Jim Sturgess, in yellowface, I'll get to that later.) who seesher as the face of their rebellion and their civil liberties. In the post apocalyptic future, Zachry is haunted by a ghostly Hugo Weaving while he attempts to rescue his tribe from an anarchic tribe with a peacekeeper (Halle Berry).
It will take a very long time for critics and audiences to accept Cloud Atlas and its metaphysical themes and journeys, but upon the first viewing, it's not the level of patience and attention spent on the film, but whether you could understand the nature of the film and here's how. The first five minutes is perhaps the key in how you would enjoy the
film where the main characters of all of the stories are introduced. It establishes a foreboding lead up to the events of each story
that ultimately becomes their journey to overcome oppression, corruption or forming a new "natural order". These are the central concepts that Cloud Atlas is concentrated upon.
The connections between characters of different eras can be made simple, easier, although obvious as their motivations rely on a different medium of the past whether it's a journal, a series of letters, or a film. As a result, the message of "whether our choices creates the same mistakes" is successfully delivered because of the situation of cruelty we will imminently face.
Like Holy Motors, the film has different plotlines containing the same ensemble bringing in different personalities that becomes transparent and common in many genres. The first and second plots resemble a period piece that might have been directed as an "Oscar bait" film, the third a political thriller, fourth a comedic farce and the last two threads a hard sci-fi. The cast featuring Hanks, Weaving, Broadbent and Berry all deliver outstanding performances, but the stand outs are Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess who are the saviours of their times.
On a technical aspect, it is very perplexing with the makeup to be the most positive and negative highlight of the film. Let me address that but more specifically the makeup for the Neo Seoul thread, which has been getting so much controversy about the white actors playing characters with the most slanted eyes.
For me, as an Asian, it was not really a problem, though I do understand some people's frustration into why neither the Wachowskis nor Tykwer would cast actual Asians rather than putting Caucasians in extensive prothetics. Like many others of my background, I have a huge problem with films today setting up stereotypes of us not only because it's racist, but because it's tired screenwriting; whether it would be us a master in martial arts, being effeminate with that accent every non-Asian finds funny or becoming really stern with our education (which is probably true for us). When an actor of white skin dresses up as an Asian, this takes it to the extreme, most notably with the slanty eyes due to the fact that it's distinguishable with any other race. This isn't the case with Cloud Atlas, as the main point of the film is for the characters to overcome their discrimination and earn their need for equality in the process, particularly with racism and abolitionism. So accusing the film of being racist is contradictory of that purpose. Nevertheless the makeup does little do they distract from the narrative, particularly with Neo Seoul. Though I will say this; Hugo Weaving in that prosthetic looks almost like a Vulcan rather than an Asian.
The editing from Alexander Berner should be commended for presenting these multiple stories in one structure. Many scenes are cut back and forth to present situations the characters would face later showing how one thread would affect and become parallel with the other. It's like the structure in Inception but instead it's with different time periods. The production design and the special effects is breathtaking equal to its masterful score from Reinold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tykwer himself.
There's a sense of profundity in the film's structure that is actually simple, but wide in its quest for freedom, acceptance and truth that you might call this a film that Amnesty International would certainly want to endorse, but it isn't glorified nor is it in-your-face. I assume that you wouldn't enjoy the film as a whole if you actually preferred which timeline you like best because each thread told has the same level of significance of each character and scenario who play out those themes.
Let us note that Cloud Atlas, whether you love it or hate it, is a movie filled with such an incredible level of ambition and narrative structure equal with 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life as well as sharing the deepest insight of the human condition with films like Kryzstof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy and Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche New York while giving us the chance to go with it as an adventure (a la Children of Men). As I mentioned, I have not read the book, but this film stands on its own. Cloud Atlas is in every respect a cinematic equivalent of a symphony, with the Wachowskis and Twyker the conductors of the orchestra and the effort brought together help the plots compliment and support each other. It may be this generation's Brazil or Blade Runner, with the concepts, humor and story wrapped together as an entertaining monolith.
A second viewing or more might make me grasp what I didn't get in the film, but upon that, it remains as emotionally gripping, strong, feminist and funny as it will ever be.