One word to describe “Cloud Atlas” would be ambitious. Not only does the film focus on themes of freedom and life after death, it does so in a series of six interconnecting stories that span a time of thousands of years, ranging from the 1800s to an apocalyptic future. As we jump from story to story, time-to-time, we see how the actions of each individual affect the past, present and future in ways that reveal conspiracies, reunite old lovers and ignite revolutions.
Directed by Tom Tykwer (“The International”) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), “Cloud Atlas” is based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell. The story progresses through each time period one at a time until it reaches its ultimate apocalyptic future in the middle, and then does it again, only backwards. The novel begins and ends with the 1800s.
The beauty of film is that it does not have to stick to this format. The film jumps back and forth and doesn’t really have a strict structure like the novel does. In some ways this may be confusing, but the directors do an impressive job of maintaining a solid story despite the fact that it is being rippled across multiple time periods.
The audience witnesses a man, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess “Across the Universe”), dying on a slave ship, all the while keeping a journal of his experiences; an aspiring composer named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw “I’m Not There”) aiding an aging prominent composer in the 1930s in developing what could be his masterpiece while sending letters to his male lover and friend, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy “Master and Commander”); 1970s journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry “X-Men: The Last Stand”) who uncovers a conspiracy that puts her life in jeopardy; now, elderly Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent “Moulin Rouge!”), owner of a small publishing company, is tricked into signing into a prison-like nursing home; a clone called Somni-451 (Doana Bae “The Host”), bred only for the purpose of working in a fast food restaurant in a futuristic Korea, finds herself igniting a revolution; and finally, in an apocalyptic even further future, a tribesman named Zachary (Tom Hanks “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”) has his faith tested and is reunited with the love of his life.
What makes “Cloud Atlas” even more impressive, besides just the fact that it manages to weave all these stories together cohesively, is that it also uses the same actors for nearly all the different characters throughout the six stories. The actors undergo extensive make-up work to transform into different characters. This is important because as one of the focal points of the film is that our lives travel across centuries even long after we are gone, be it through reincarnation or some other phenomenon. Whatever one wishes to call it, the main point here is that strong bonds between friends and lovers never die, and that our actions have ramifications, whether good or bad, even after death. Many of the actors appear unrecognizable which is a testament to the quality makeup used in the film.
The film is nearly three hours long, but with so much taking place, it is a fair running time. Some viewers might find it tedious to sit through, but I would watch it again based primarily on that it is one of those movies where one might discover something new with each viewing. One of its drawbacks is that it can be cheesy at points. It tries so hard to be a serious film, but it also teeters on absurdity. With the Wachowskis directing, it is bound to be a little absurd, but the film manages to always get back on track. The film’s intentions are made clearer by the end, but the director still left room for interpretations. While the film opened to mixed reviews, it may be one of those films that stand the test of time. Other Sci-fi films like “Blade Runner” were not initially received well but are now considered classics. Time will tell if “Cloud Atlas” achieves the same.