“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 determine 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 … Is this possible?”
Cloud Atlas is not an easy movie to describe, nor is it an easy movie to watch. The official synopsis of the film is that it’s “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” It is symphonic in the way that a complex concerto is, seamlessly intertwining each movement until the audience is left in an inspired awe, recounting the tale that was just told to them in a language they struggle to understand. Cloud Atlas’ beauty can only be enjoyed after the sum of the parts has been experienced, but in doing so, each part is not appreciated fully and the connection to its neighboring pieces is not completely apparent.
On mere $102 million budget, this independent anthology was adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 award-winning novel. Encompassing six separate plots spanning from the Pacific Ocean circa 1849 to an island on distant post-apocalyptic Earth is no easy objective, even with a run time of 172 minutes. So daunting a task was Atlas that acclaimed German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) employed the help of the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix). The team of directors filmed parallel to each other using separate camera crews, and A-list actors such Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, and Hugo Weaving played leads in the multiple narratives.
Each tale is played out in tandem, employing a sort of collage type of film making that I have never seen used before. Each time one story begins to draw you in, Atlas throws you into another time and place. Lines are often repeated in each narrative, and small things such as a pebble, a comet shaped birthmark, or a fleeting line of music help tie them together in a meaningful way. But because of the startling contrast of each story, these devices sometimes fail, and the viewer is left feeling detached from a movie that is trying so hard to be profound and unique that it occasionally misses the mark. Each timeline lacks in one way or another, be it direction, dialogue, or relevance to the plot – especially the farfetched post-apocalyptic sequence (the broken English, Hugo Weaving’s character, etc.). Connecting these deep stories is ultimately an impossible effort. Yet the cast and crew deserve praise for such a brilliant attempt that comes close to doing so.
Like the haunting melody of the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” that is echoed throughout the years of the film, the connection between the narratives is like the ghost of a memory, something we know is there but can’t quite put our fingers on. The characters contribute to it, know it, and are shaped by it the same way that we the viewer are as we watch the events onscreen unfold – and that’s what makes Cloud Atlas one of the year’s best, as well as my favorite.
Four and a half out of five stars (4-1/2 / 5)