There’s a gorgeous little motif played across the interlocking stories of “Cloud Atlas” entitled the “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” In the 1920s, a young apprentice to an aging composer pieces it together, while in the 70s a woman listens to it on record and can’t seem to shake off the familiarity of it.
Haven’t we all had this sensation before? Of something just seeming so familiar it is, as if, we have lived this moment before, crossed this path prior, perhaps even in another lifetime? Like most symphonies—their arrangements stitched together into something collectively beautiful, though each piece solitarily lovely in its own right—“Cloud Atlas” is a testament to this construction. A devotion to storytelling through a combination of convention and creation, “Cloud Atlas” is familiarity told in strikingly unfamiliar ways.
A sea of recognizable faces in a mass collection of themes, “Cloud Atlas” boldly, daringly, and remarkably takes on the task of adapting the multiple, century-spanning narratives of David Mitchell’s novel into something altogether miraculous.
It draws connections between six major storylines—a 19th century ocean voyage across the Pacific in the slave era; the aforementioned young composer and his intimate letters to a lover; a tough-as-nails journalist unraveling a murder at a nuclear power plant; an old man gleefully teaming up with other residents to escape from a nursing home; a futuristic revolution taking place in the land of New Seoul; and a search for answers within a collapsed society in the British Isles, occurring 106 years after an event called “The Fall.”
These stories are interwoven together with precision and style, meshing quite wonderfully even when the pieces of this whole are never quite fitting together as the story moves along. A great cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, Susan Surandon, and Hugh Grant, among many others, populate the narratives in multiple roles, many of which you may not even catch until they’re revealed in the final credits. On this note, “Cloud Atlas” has absolutely no competition for the best use of make-up in a film this year.
It’s a nifty casting decision and one that speaks to the act of reincarnation—one of the movie’s central themes—and becomes even more interesting when you realize what the film is doing with its multi-role aesthetic. It’s playing with your mind in wonderfully tricky ways, demanding you pay attention, and “Cloud Atlas” deserves every second of it.
Wacky, wonderful, weird, intense, challenging, audacious, and emotionally raw, “Cloud Atlas” is a film where paying attention pays off in full. A thematic melting pot with musings on love, faith, creation, inspiration, chance, consumerism, memory, friendship, and human nature at its most primitive and poignant, the film entraps the viewer in meaning even when the answers are not completely clear-cut.
Told via the dynamic directorial collaboration of Andy and Lana Wachowski (the “Matrix” trilogy, “Speed Racer”), and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), “Cloud Atlas” is drenched in visual wonder, keen observation, and astonishing editing work—an act of unleashed, uninhibited, and unlimited ambition that in the long scheme of things, is ultimately unmatched among a history of grand undertakings in cinematic storytelling.
My experience with the film, while watching, was one of moment-to-moment captivation—a mixture of chin-stroking curiosity and endless fascination with the events occurring on screen. And when the movie hits, it hits. “Cloud Atlas” is a mesmerizing jigsaw puzzle I witnessed slowly being constructed before my eyes, almost as if by magic.
But I’d argue that this is a film even more powerful after the fact. “Cloud Atlas” is one of those rarities that slowly crafted itself into a masterpiece nearly a day after first experiencing it. It latched onto my brain and heart like cancer on a dying man’s cells.
And like that dying man, lying in a hospital bed and contemplating this overwhelmingly epic enigma called life, I sat and contemplated this overwhelmingly epic enigma called “Cloud Atlas.” Almost 20 hours after my viewing, the weirdest phenomena of memory occurred.
As I recalled but a singular line of the film, another layer of the movie’s meaning hit me like a freight train carrying a load of emotional bricks—assaulting my psyche with thematic importance that actually took time to craft, nurture, and understand. As it took up residence in my memory, my relationship with this film simply grew.
I liked “Cloud Atlas” when it ended. But by the next day, I had fallen in love. In its intricate instances of interconnection, the film rides the narrative complexities with ease and showers the film in visual skill, becoming a sensationally satisfying feast for the eyes (the Wachowskis, with no contest, are the true pioneers of digital filmmaking).
At almost three hours, the movie may feel like a lifetime to some. But for others, the movie will certainly embody an experience worth reliving again and again.
Personally, I cannot wait to reincarnate and immerse myself in the cinematic verve of “Cloud Atlas” for multiple lifetimes to come.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.