If I had to guess a single adjective that will appear in the most reviews of Cloud Atlas, it would be “ambitious.” But that truly is the perfect word for the latest directorial effort by the Wachowskis, who teamed with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer to bring David Mitchell’s 2004 book – which many deemed “unfilmable” – to the big screen. A crisscrossing tale of six connected stories that span hundreds of years, this is a hard sell even with its A-list cast. But the result is a powerful and emotional piece of pop entertainment that, like most of the Wachowski’s best work, is equally adept at combining thrilling action and philosophical explorations into one cohesive whole.
One of the biggest compliments I can give this film is that I was fully prepared to take pages and pages of notes during it, but I barely ended up with any at all. After seeing the incredible five minute trailer, I was expecting to pore over every little detail to make sure I could mention all these great little moments and connections, but the film is so fluid that I couldn’t help but sit back and let it flow over me, putting those kinds of notions aside in favor of appreciating the bigger picture. It floored me, and seeing how it’s so willing to break the rules of conventional narratives while still telling an emotionally satisfying series of stories was a fantastic experience. For me, Cloud Atlas wasn’t as much a movie as it was an experience, man, and one that is unlike that any other film could deliver.
It’s worth noting that the six intertwining stories that comprise the movie are all good, but not groundbreaking on their own. It’s the editing, seamlessly flowing between multiple stories, that turns the film into a transformative work of art. The only thing I could possibly compare it to would be Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour experimental film crafted from thousands of instances throughout cinema history in which characters mention the time or a clock appears in the background, serving as a functioning timepiece. It isn’t a slave to any singular narrative, and often, like Cloud Atlas, it will transition from one story into another through a clever editing flourish; a character in one setting will open a door, only to have the next shot be from another time period altogether, but a door is opening there as well, giving the stories the briefest moment of connection before picking up in the new location.
That’s one of the main themes of this film, along with being its tagline: Everything is Connected. But don’t go in expecting a traditional cause and effect relationship between the disparate time periods; there is no grand domino effect that results in a clean and precise conclusion set up from the earliest time period and revealed at the end. The connections are more thematic than literal (though there are literal ones as well), strung together by the Cloud Atlas Sextet, a piece of music (composed by Tykwer) that plays in various forms throughout the multiple narratives. And as the main cast plays multiple parts throughout – often switching genders and races thanks to excellent prosthetic makeup – the movie takes on an air of importance and seems to be a personal sigh of relief for Lana Wachowski, who, back in The Matrix days before her sex change, was known as Larry.
The actors’ ability to switch so effortlessly between genders and races, which also ties in to one of the futuristic storylines concerning a clone who rises up against an oppressive society, goes a long way in serving the film’s larger message: we are all members of humanity, and races and genders don’t matter nearly as much as our actions. There’s so much going on and so many different things to grasp here, I suspect it’ll be one of those films that gets better with age. Again, the individual stories themselves aren’t hard to follow, but deciphering the directors’ intent of a certain cut or framing choice will provide film fans with a lot to love during repeat viewings.
There’s something special about watching a movie swing for the fences, and even if there are a couple drawbacks here and there (the running time is just a hair too long, etc.), it’s rewarding as a film fan to know there are people out there who are willing to take risks and make things happen, even when conventional wisdom says there’s no way it will work. (Even with the juice the Wachowskis gained in this town from The Matrix franchise, the three directors had to raise nearly $100 million independently to get this done.) Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, fast-paced, avant-garde action movie, and it’s one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve had in 2012. Until next time…