Unprecedented; If there's a word that Cloud Atlas can possibly be boiled down to, that's the one. For while there is certainly the blood lines of The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, The Tree of Life, Inception and more coursing through its veins, Cloud Atlas is an animal unlike any seen before it in the annals of film history. Featuring some of the most exquisitely shot bursts of action alongside heaping helpings of Terry Gilliam-esque humorous hijinks and the year's greatest ensemble, the film is a cinematic triumph, one that will have you stunned, elated, and desperate to see it again as you pass through the theater's doors.
In a normal film review, this would be the place where a basic plot summary is given, but since Cloud Atlas could be described as a film about everything with diverse plot lines ranging from an escape from a retirement home by an elderly British quartet in the modern day to a post apocalyptic journey to Hell at the end of the world to a runaway slave's journey on a British trading vessel in the 1840's, it's better to let you discover the story (stories?) for yourself, and instead try to put into words how this incredibly vast canvas that directors Tom Tywker (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) chose to pain on moved me, scrambled my brain, made me laugh, made me gasp, and at the end say “What was that and why don't more filmmakers try it?”
This is a film, like many, defined by an unquenchable love. But where most love stories are tied to the life of those who are caught up in it, Cloud Atlas is able to move beyond these boundaries, showing a love able to freely soar across genders, races, and social classes throughout millenniums. While this is a wonderful notion and beautiful to witness, what is perhaps even more powerful is that love is shown to be a never ending process. Love it seems isn't the only thing that is eternal: hatred, evil, and prejudices always seem to pop up just when it seems like the characters in the film have found their happy ending. No, love is not the idea by itself, but the struggle for its consummation on the one hand and the utter annihilation of it on the other; this furious ying/yang is the drumbeat to which this chaotic and majestic piece of work marches. The battle of good and evil? Yes, as trite as it may sound on the surface, it's about that: how the two sides are often disguised from each other, the lengths they will go to assure victory, and how in the end every decision made along the way will have impacted the final result. This is a story about love, good, evil, sacrifices, and consequences; in short, its film about us reaching for our dreams and about the darknesses that try to keep us and our desires apart from one another.
There are many unique facets that contribute to one of the more thrilling experiences that I have ever had in a theater starting with the direction and editing. Linking six different stories together with the use of “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” as connecting material, the three filmmakers onboard expertly weaved through scenes reminiscent at times of the emotionally shattering Saving Private Ryan at others as adrenaline pulsing as The Matrix and still others as hilarious as a good Monty Python sketch. Each of the six stories could have easily been their own film, with none standing out as a particularly weak link and all of them complementing each other with simultaneously disparate tones, but unified themes. Calling to mind Tree of Life, Magnolia, and Inception, this film was probably an editor's nightmare, but the end result, like the piece of music it's based around is a moving, vibrant, masterwork. As funny as it is heartbreaking, as over the top as it is restrained, as epic as it is intimate, this is one that could have been a mess, but instead gathers the best of all possible worlds, with nary a note feeling out of place.
Just as cohesive is the film's wonderful ensemble. In a move that would make Andy Serkis blush, each member of the cast is allowed to portray multiple roles (some up to six), allowing them like their directors every opportunity to stretch their thespian muscles both dramatic and comedic. Jumping at the opportunity is lead Tom Hanks who gives one of his three best ever performances here, playing at times a disgusting villain with a wicked brutality, a hilarious gangster, and a heartbreaking near-silent hero speaking a strange variation of English that makes Shakespeare easy to comprehend. Using every part of himself, whether his voice, his eyes, or his physicality, Hanks is stunning here, disappearing into each of his six roles. He never distracts from the overall piece, playing each character as a variation of the last, showing a soul's progression, hinting both at the past and the future, but still getting lost in each and every moment of an individual's journey. Hanks won't come close to an Oscar for this, but his bravery and performance are more than deserving of one.
Nearly as impressive as Hanks is Jim Broadbent, who perhaps not called upon to show quite the same range, is still able to steal the film whenever he bursts onto the scene. Like Hanks, Broadbent is called upon to play both a hero and villain in different sections, both of which he succeeds at with startling success. Where Hanks is perhaps meant to give the film gravitas and heart, Broadbent is given the film's funny-bone, lightening the proceedings just when they seem pitch black and offering audiences a chance to recover from some of the film's most grim moments. His is not a slight turn in anyway, however, with one character entirely loveable and at least two others just as horrible as Hank's villain.
If we want to talk about true evil, though, no one in the film is better at it, or indeed given more practice than Hugo Weaving. A villain in each of the six stories, Weaving creates a persona that although stretching from the a business suit clad assassin (sound familiar?) to an Asian bureaucrat, to a Nurse Ratched wannabe, is every bit the equal of his Agent Smith from the Matrix Trilogy. A malevolent force in whatever form, this evil will stop at nothing to kill love and is often the film's driving force.
While these three stand out on a first viewing, each and every member of the ensemble including Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Halle Berry fits in perfectly and are truly brilliant in their own right. Having a chance to play different races, genders, and ages, all step up to the plate and instead of delivering embarrassing caricatures or getting lost from one character to another, do an excellent job of letting each character serve the whole, showing that as the script says every kindness and every injury will impact the past, present, and future. Despite the heavy latex or CGI that the actors are caked in, more often than not, the chemistry between them always seems to shine through.
In short, this film, which I cannot wait to see again and again is a daring marvel. The technical accomplishments alone make this a mandatory viewing for any serious movie fans, but for those willing to dig deeper, to hang on during the wild and crazy ride that is Cloud Atlas will find a poetic, explosive joy: the film of the year so far and one that will be hard pressed to be beat.
Initial Rating: 10/10