When watching “Cloud Atlas” it is not only important to ask where you are, but also to ask when you are. Released Oct. 26, the movie deals with some of the most existential questions of the human race: Is there such a thing as reincarnation? Can the actions of one individual affect others in the past, present and future? Directed by the Wachowski siblings (the minds behind the “Matrix” trilogy as well as 2008’s poorly received “Speed Racer”) and Tom Tykwer (the German-born director of “Run Lola Run”), the film is a prime example of ambitious moviemaking at its best. Based on the 2004 novel of the same title, it centers around six different plot lines that span the course of hundreds of years, continents, characters, themes and genres in one of the most impressive displays that I have ever seen.A science-fiction action thriller, a light comedy, a love story, a murder mystery, a philosophical statement — these are all the genres that “Cloud Atlas” encompasses. As the movie progresses, the interconnected plot lines shift between one another with such rapidity that it can only be described as a child with attention deficit disorder who has consumed an entire thermos of coffee. If that image doesn’t work for you, think of the movie as “Pulp Fiction” on steroids. Clocking in at just under three hours, “Cloud Atlas” is not just one of the most expensive German-produced films of all time — it is a piece of work to behold.
It is 1849 as a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) from San Francisco sails to the Catham Islands in the South Pacific to conduct business on behalf of his father-in-law. Fast forward to 1936 where a young English musician (Ben Wishaw) becomes the apprentice of a famous composer in a pre-World War II Britain. Next, it is 1975, and a journalist (Halle Berry) stumbles into the most important story of her career. Then it’s 2012, and a publisher in his 60s (Jim Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a nursing home, courtesy of his dear brother. Now it’s the year 2144, in a dystopian version of Seoul, South Korea, where artificial human fabricants are created to serve the general public. It is here that the audience may catch some similarities to “The Matrix” movies. And to top off the evening, the viewer is transported to an island in a post-apocalyptic Earth inhabited by humans who speak with such a strange dialect of English that it is hard to understand what they are saying most of the time, a place where beings from beyond the stars dock their fusion-based spaceships.
To go any deeper into the plot would take some time, three hours to be exact. Another thing to keep in mind is the movie’s ensemble cast, which is really used to its full potential. Just as the directors were not limited by the convention of telling only one narrative, so too, each actor was not limited to one role. As a result, each dons several different roles that transcend sex, culture and time. Prosthetics are used to the point where the actors are totally unrecognizable, but in some instances it just comes off as ridiculous. Nevertheless, there are some stellar performances from the likes of Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving, who play such characters as a homicidal British author, a greedy physician, a hit man, a dominatrix nurse and a washed-up composer.
One way that “Cloud Atlas” transcends the ordinary popcorn flick is its particular method of storytelling. One of the film’s major themes is the interconnectivity of human beings via their actions throughout history. In other words, “From womb to tomb, we are bound to each other, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” While seen in the major story arcs themselves, this theme is also manifested in how the directors decided to structure the stories over the course of the film. For example, when one particular plot begins to heat up, so do the rest. Just as we reach an important juncture in one story, the others follow suit, the music wells up, and the film begins to shift from one time period to the other until the excitement is over. During the displacement, voice-overs are utilized as a character begins a monologue that is meant as profound. While some are quite beautiful, others fall flat.
Having said that, “Cloud Atlas” is a beautiful movie. If the emotional appeal fails to keep your attention, the eye-popping visuals will. Color, like in all the Wachowskis’ movies, is used to convey a certain tone at a certain time. In “The Matrix,” tones of green and black were used to establish a sense of uncertainty and mechanical order. In “Speed Racer,” bright, candylike colors helped channel the spirit and fun of the original cartoon. The same technique is used here, especially in scenes depicting the dismal future. Both bright and dark colors are used to construct a contrast between the illusion of happiness and the sad truth of reality for the fabricants of tomorrow. Each scene is breathtaking, and no matter if a character is traipsing over precarious mountaintops, sailing over crystal-clear waters or standing on the streets of 1970s San Francisco, the viewer can feel the amount of effort that went into framing a particular scene.
For me, the movie was nothing without its hauntingly beautiful score, written by Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. Almost dreamlike, the music evokes emotions with its delicate piano and string harmonies.
This movie is a manifestation of our greatest daydreams and our most terrible nightmares. It is not afraid to soar to the highest peaks or dive to the darkest chasms of the natural word. Furthermore, it has a little something for everyone. One minute you’re on an exciting chase down a futuristic highway, and the next you’re comedically escaping from an old folks’ home. At times it does become too cumbersome and loses track of its overall message. This may be a case of too many directors spoiling the soup.
In addition, “Cloud Atlas” is a complex, “Inception”-like movie that may leave you with a million questions. Viewers may need to see it twice in order to truly make up their minds. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it is comprised of many pieces but relies on the audience to participate in the experience. “Cloud Atlas” is something straight out of the imagination. All we need to do is let it in and enjoy the ride.