For the past several years, I’ve thought that The Artists Formerly Known As The Wachowski Brothers were comparable to George Lucas. Both made their filmmaking debuts by way of small yet creative movies with outstanding reputations (Bound for the Wachowski Siblings and THX 1138 for Lucas). Both of them made a single stellar movie that forever changed Hollywood and pop culture at large as we know them (The Matrix and Star Wars). Also, both of them made continuations of those masterpieces, utterly ruining their respective franchises to the eternal regret of their fanbases (The Matrix sequels and the Star Wars prequels. Remember, Lucas wasn’t behind the camera for Parts V and VI).
Looking at the Wachowskis’ entire ouvre, a few trends become clear. The Matrix trilogy and Speed Racer (the only film they directed post-Matrix until recently) had countless flaws, but there’s no denying that they were visually gorgeous. The Wachowskis showed great skill at presenting action scenes, their camera movements were endlessly innovative, and their work with CGI was nothing short of groundbreaking. What’s more, the Wachowskis show uncanny skill at casting the best possible actor for each role. Even when their casting choices seem unlikely at best (Theodore Logan as an ass-kicking messiah? Really?), they somehow miraculously work out.
On the other hand, so many of the problems with the Matrix sequels come back to the screenplay. Far too much of the dialogue and the plotting in those movies were confusing and/or redundant. Speed Racer had its fair share of problems in dialogue and pacing as well, but at least that movie could use the goofiness of its source material as an excuse. Additionally, the Wachowskis wrote the screenplay of V for Vendetta, which was admittedly a very good movie for those who didn’t know just how thoroughly the source material had been butchered.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: The Wachowski siblings — like George Lucas before them — are wonderful directors, but crappy storytellers. As such, ever since I saw Speed Racer four years ago, I’ve been pleading to the movie gods for a film that was directed by the Wachowskis and written by someone else. For the time being, it looks like Cloud Atlas is as close as I’m going to get.
This time, the Wachowskis wrote their screenplay as an adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel, released in 2004. I haven’t read the book myself, but I’ve been told that it’s the kind of lengthy, dense, multi-layered tome that couldn’t possibly be made into a movie. The Wachowskis’ track record of adapting such source material is very spotty, as any fan of “V for Vendetta” will attest.
But the Wachowskis didn’t stop with the novel as a source of creative input. They also chose to collaborate with writer/director Tom Tykwer, best known as the mad genius behind Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Honestly, this was the primary reason why I wanted to see Cloud Atlas. Individually, the Wachowskis and Tykwer were already among the most eccentric and unpredictable talents working behind a camera today. What could possibly happen when the three of them choose to make a movie together?
Something unbelievably awesome, as it turns out. Go figure.
It’s impossible to talk about Cloud Atlas as I would any other movie, because it isn’t just one movie. The film is comprised of no less than six distinct storylines, every one of which is long enough and detailed enough to warrant a movie in itself. I would need six distinct blog entries to adequately describe the premise and cast of each storyline in my usual depth. In point of fact, I can almost imagine this novel being adapted into a whole series of films, all sharing the same cast of actors.
But instead, the storylines are all lumped together into a single film. And by some miracle, they beautifully meshed together into a single coherent whole.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the recurring cast members are a huge part of this movie’s crux. We also see themes, motifs, and everyday storytelling devices that are used in every one of the storylines. Furthermore, none of these stories take place in a vacuum. These aren’t separate parallel universes, but parts of a single timeline and a single world. As a result, it’s not at all uncommon for some characters and the artifacts they leave behind to appear in multiple stories.
My point is this: The movie’s presentation hinges entirely on these shared elements between storylines. They are the glue that holds the storylines — and thus the entire film — together. The film’s favorite method of transitioning from one plotline to the next is to go from one actor’s character to another character played by the same actor, or to go from one plot’s story beat to a comparable story beat in another plot.
I realize how confusing that may sound, but it totally works in execution. This method of switching between storylines makes it surprisingly easy to keep track of which plot we’re currently watching, and it masterfully provides us with the illusion that all of these scenes and plots are part of a single overarching story. What’s more, this presentation reinforces plenty of the movie’s themes.
This movie has a whole ton of statements to make about a variety of deep subjects. The film states that everything and everyone is somehow connected. It posits that we don’t just have the ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others, but an obligation. Equality, compassion, revenge, karma, sacrifice… all of these issues and many more are examined as the film continues.
That said, the movie very seldom gets preachy. Yes, the film does make some overt statements, but those are relatively few. Instead, the movie prefers to use the multiple storylines as a way of examining multiple themes multiple times from multiple angles. In this way, even the film’s most implicit messages come through loud and clear. Hell, some of the movie’s themes — connectivity, karma, the impact of our actions across time and space, etc. — are woven directly into the film’s transitions between stories.
The film’s incredible amount of heart and intelligence is a key reason why I stayed glued to my seat for all 172 minutes of this film. Another key reason is the film’s momentum. Not once, in any of the multiple stories, does this movie ever give us a break. All six of the storylines just keep going and going and going, constantly moving forward. This pacing is fantastic because 1) it implies that the film was not merely padded out to three hours, and 2) it provides the illusion that some turning point or endgame is only a few minutes away, granting us a reason to stay patient even as the film asks for us to stay patient.
I find it amazing that this film had three musical composers (one of whom was Tykwer himself) and two cinematographers, but only one credited editor. Don’t get me wrong, all of them turn in fine work. I had the “Cloud Atlas” theme stuck in my head through my entire drive back home, and I loved it. As for the camerawork… well, I’ll put it to you this way.
At the time of this writing, my local IMAX screen is still occupied by Paranormal Activity 4. With all respect to the Lloyd Center 10 and with appreciation for the many great times they’ve given me, fuck that. When I confirmed that Cloud Atlas was released with an IMAX option and my theater didn’t offer that option for the film’s opening weekend, I was genuinely pissed.
No movie released this year deserved the IMAX treatment more than this movie does. Every frame of this film is absolutely gorgeous, and it demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. If I can find the time, I fully intend to see this movie again on an IMAX screen when the opportunity arises. Compare that to PA4, which had no business being in IMAX to begin with. But forgive me, I digress.
The score is great, the camerawork is superlative, the screenplay is remarkably solid, the sound design is wonderful… this film is a technical marvel in practically every way. But the editing goes beyond that. This movie took six totally distinct storylines and wove them together into a single cohesive whole. And it was all the work of a single credited man cutting the film reels together. For that Herculean accomplishment, Alexander Berner deserves the highest award and the greatest accolades that Hollywood can offer.
Ah, but I haven’t even gotten started on the cast. The movie features an amazing ensemble cast, loaded with such talents as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Doona Bae, Xun Zhou, and David Gyasi. These are all phenomenal actors, and they all get to show off just how phenomenal they are in this movie.
Each of the six storylines in this movie revolves around a single actor: 1. Jim Sturgess as a lawyer travelling over the Pacific Ocean in 1850, 2. Ben Whishaw as the secretly gay man who composes the eponymous Cloud Atlas sextet in 1931 Belgium, 3. Halle Berry as an investigative journalist in California, circa 1975, 4. Jim Broadbent as a hapless book publisher in modern-day Britain, 5. Doona Bae as a cloned Korean woman in the 22nd century, and 6. Tom Hanks as a neo-caveman living after the fall of humanity.
(Side note 1: If I had to single out any of these main characters, it would easily be the one played by Doona Bae. As the film’s moral standard, she definitely warrants some extra attention.)
(Side note 2: The characters listed above all have an identical birthmark, shaped like a shooting star. It’s an interesting touch, and I’m curious to learn if there’s some deeper meaning to it.)
I list these plotlines to give you a vague idea of the movie’s sheer scope and the diversity of the stories in play. Looking at this list, it should be obvious that no two stories are alike. There’s action, there’s romance, there’s science fiction, there’s mystery, there’s comedy, there’s tragedy… these storylines represent so many different genres that there’s something for just about everyone in this movie.
By extension, because no two storylines are alike, it goes without saying that no two characters are alike. Therefore, because every main actor in this cast appears in each storyline, each actor is given six totally different roles to play. Tom Hanks could play a good guy in one storyline and play a total sneak in another. Halle Berry could play his love interest in one story, and never once share the screen with him in another story. There’s one plot where Jim Sturgess plays a main character, and another where he only appears as a face in a photograph. Quite often, these actors are playing different ages, different ethnicities, and even different genders.
The cast is uniformly staggering. It’s absolutely breathtaking to see so many actors give so many completely different performances, all under the roof of this one picture. Plus, watching to see how and when the main actors will show up is a huge part of the fun in this movie.
The makeup is naturally a tremendous part of the actors’ performances in this movie, though I regret to say that it’s rather hit-and-miss. Halle Berry’s gender swap looks godawful, for example, but she makes for a gorgeous white woman. Compare that to Doona Bae, whose American makeover looks absolutely hideous. Come to think of it, the film’s makeup artists seemed to have a real problem taking actors from white to Asian or vice-versa.
But if you want proof of the makeup’s quality, just stay for the end credits. The actors’ credits come with pictures of all the characters they played, which makes it fun to check your guesses.
Still, all of this is beside my greatest nitpick of the film. It’s a plot hole involving Sturgess’ Korean character, a plot hole so gaping and so void of explanation that it would have broken a lesser movie. Fortunately, it was simply one terrible moment in a three-hour movie, and only one bit of stupid in what’s otherwise an awesome film.
Cloud Atlas is one of those rare films that blends incredible visuals with deep thematic material and a great story. Hell, the film presents six entertaining stories. It’s one of those elusive movies that absolutely shouldn’t work on any level, and yet somehow does. This is a film made with the kind of talent, creativity, ambition, and intellect that we need to see more of in our multiplexes.
I strongly urge you all to see this movie as soon as you can on the biggest screen possible. I know it’s a long movie to sit through, and I know the IMAX premium is expensive, but the film is so entertaining and it moves at such a fast pace that I can guarantee you won’t be bored. Your time and money will be well spent.