The first thing most people seem to say when they see the Cloud Atlas trailer is, “uhhhh… what…?” I was in the same boat as the large chunk of viewers who watched the trailer and couldn’t tell you remotely what it was about. So, despite the mixed reviews and almost three-hour running time, I was still pretty intrigued to see Cloud Atlas. Mainly just so I could attempt to understand the basic plot of what appeared to be one of the most confusing looking movies of our time.
My best attempt to generically explain the story of Cloud Atlas will most likely not make any sense. I mean, I guess I could explain the individual stories in the film… But the overall point of the film will prove to be a little tougher. OK, here goes… The movie is broken up into six different eras of time; and these are all told as kind of unrelated, yet sometimes totally related vignettes that are intercut between each other. The first involves an 1850’s ship coming to America from Africa and the bond that the contractor forms with a castaway slave. The second involves a 1930’s musician working with a composer to create music, while writing letters about it to his lover. The third involves a 1970’s news reporter who is uncovering a story on an unsafe power plant, and becomes the target of some assassins and such. The fourth involves a present day book publisher who has a run in with the wrong crowd, and ends up in a place he doesn’t want to be. The fifth involves a future sometime around 2115 in Korea where replicants are used as a work force, and a revolutionary-type guy frees one of them. And the sixth involves an unknown distant future after that where some people have gone back to primitive ways and others have ultra-sophisticated technology. All of them feature (mostly) the same actors, playing different roles, with a different actor being the highlight of a each story. So it’s kind of ambitious or whatever…
I gathered that an element of each story got sort of passed on to the next one in the timeline, but it’s so scattered that it’s hard to trace everything. From story 1 to 2 was the diary. From 2 to 3 was the music recording. I can’t figure out what connects 3 to 4 (must have missed it)… From 4 to 5 was the film adaptation. And from 5 to 6 was the video recording. These are the only rock solid connections I could find. The obvious loose connection between them all is the actors playing multiple roles. I assumed this was either to indicate some sort of past life meaning, or at least a distant spiritual connection through multiple people through time. I got kind of lost in the connections in that regard, because I didn’t see glaring similarities in too many of the characters, but I suppose there were subtle ones. Love may or may not have been the connecting factor of the whole thing… if that’s the case then that’s something of a cheesy connection. I don’t know, this is a movie you definitely have to read into.
But at least it was entertaining! I was thinking that this might become this year’s The Tree of Life, but then Cloud Atlas actually ended up being watchable, so it wins. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tree of Life had the exact same themes about connections throughout time and space as Cloud Atlas did, but Tree of Life was told in such an incoherent manner that everything was entirely lost in metaphor and random
guessing interpretation. At least Cloud Atlas was interpretive while still giving us a hint what the hell they were actually talking about by the end. I also enjoy how Tree of Life has become my go-to bullshit art movie to compare to things that seem potentially unexplained.
But the loose connections kind of muddled the overall product. Kind of. I actually found each individual story interesting in its own way. And a lot of them were told in different film styles. The first two felt like BBC period pieces. The 1970s one had a Three Days of the Condor / political thriller vibe to it. The one with the book publisher was a comedy. The futuristic Korea story was a sci-fi action movie along the lines of Blade Runner or Logan’s Run. And the final one felt very pure sci-fi, almost Star Trekkie at times. None of the individual stories were boring, and I was invested in all of them pretty equally. But the whole purpose of this movie was to connect them all together, and I’m not so sure that the film did such a great job doing so. I mean, it did *attempt* to connect them, but I’m not sure I buy it as a valid overall theme. Is it supposed to be that simple? Especially considering that the film was such a sprawling, epic journey. Like maybe I was just hoping for a little more substance as a reason why I should care that all of these great little stories are told in the same film. Know what I’m sayin’?
I actually think that Cloud Atlas would have been better served as a fleshed out HBO series rather than just a long movie. There’s a lot going on in this, and each story could have been introduced as an episode, then they could have started intercutting them more and more as the season went on. Could have been really cool. There’s a lot of potential to expand pretty much every story. Makes me kind of want to read the Cloud Atlas book just to learn more.
However, saying that shouldn’t take away from the single indisputably amazing element of this production: the editing. Oh lordy, this is a fantastically edited movie. The transitions between stories was seamless. I couldn’t imagine being handed the task of making six different stories with the same actors in all of them playing different roles into a fluid work, but it got done. And it had a pacing that made it seem like much shorter than 3 hours. There’s some filler in the movie, sure, but things just kept going from one thing to another so rapid fire that it didn’t matter if one scene fell flat, because in less than a minute you’ll onto something else. The fact that six stories were able to be told both SIMULTANEOUSLY and COHERENTLY for three hours is quite an achievement. I needed to go to the bathroom about two-thirds into the film (damn you, large soda! Why are you so large?!), but I just held it until the end, because even missing 3 or 4 minutes of this movie for a walk to the bathroom would have potentially made me miss 2 or 3 different story elements. So bring your catheter bags!
Also worth noting were the cinematography and special effects. A lot of interesting visuals. And a good chunk of the future technology was comically plausible (like how everything is actually really dirty and they just use holograms to cover everything up), and others were kind of lazy (thickening ropes? I guess?). But there wasn’t much to complain about in terms of visuals/production design. Except maybe someone could explain that scene where the two dudes were smashing expensive vases and then a bunch of plates fall from the ceiling. Lost me on that one…
The cast did a spectacular job, especially considering they were playing a whole bunch of different roles (they must have lost Eddie Murphy’s phone number…). In retrospect, Tom Hanks was a weird choice to be a lot of the characters he was, but he made it work. Probably because Tom Hanks is awesome. It’s also worth noting that Hugh Grant was a dickbag in every single timeline. Typecasted, I suppose.
The last era of time also had this weird dialect of English that was like dumbed-down, and really hard to understand. Sometimes, an entire scene would go by in future world and I couldn’t put together a full sentence of what they were talking about. Realistic linguistics? Maybe. But it was hard to soak in, regardless.
In order to make the actors not appear like the same people, heavy make-up and prosthetic use were in play. Some of it was pretty good. And some of it was really bad. Here’s my rundown of the make-up effects to the best of my memory:
-Tom Hanks’ old person make-up – pretty good.
-Everyone else’s old person make-up – pretty terrible.
-Beards – well done.
-Bald caps – decent.
-Fake teeth – 50/50.
-War paint – awesome.
-1970’s costuming/hair – groovy.
-Hugo Weaving as a goblin with a top hat or something – pretty cool.
-Hugo Weaving as a woman – funny, but intentionally so.
-Tom Hanks’ “Knuckle Sandwich” make-up – also intentionally hilarious.
-Making white people look like Asians – major fail.
-Making the Asian girl try and look like a redheaded white person – nightmare fuel.
-Halle Berry as an old Asian MAN – just stop…
Cloud Atlas is a challenging film. It presents a multitude of storylines that are all pretty entertaining. The link to tie them all together is a little iffy, but that didn’t take that much away from me in the long run. This film’s sprawling length and complex storytelling, in addition to a surprising amount of blood & violence, make this something that isn’t for everybody. If I had to give any film an ‘A’ for effort, it would be Cloud Atlas. It makes you think. That’s good. But it also confuses you. That’s bad. It’s pretty to look at. That’s good. But the frogurt is cursed. That’s bad. Oh, wait, now I’m just quoting The Simpsons… This review has actually felt a lot like the movie was: long, confusing, and sporadic.
But hey, I got a kick out of Cloud Atlas. I’d watch it again, if not only to pick up on all the little things I missed.
8 out of 10