Cloud Atlas is the best movie of the year. Figure I might as well get that out of the way at the top. This is gonna be a long review, so feel free to check out now if you want. Cloud Atlas is head and shoulders above any other movie I’ve seen this year, and I can’t see anything knocking it off the top spot.
Normally I’m open to outside opinions from people who disagree with me. I think it’s close-minded not to be, and a good critic should never shut him or herself out to the views of others. That said, I genuinely do not understand how anyone could dislike this movie. Maybe they saw a different version than me? Because the movie I saw was a glorious tribute to everything that makes movies great. I saw it twice, in IMAX, and I would have seen it more times if I could have. I think I’m going to be Captain Adjective today, because Cloud Atlas is a stunning motion picture.
I guess I’ll run down the list of everything that impressed me about this movie. Of course, everything impressed me about this movie, so this could take a while. First, let’s talk about the directors/screenwriters, Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix fame, and Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run. Having multiple directors on a project is nothing new. In Old Hollywood, studios would replace directors multiple times. Gone with the Wind, for instance, has three credited directors, although none of them worked together on the project. It’s the collaborative element that is so unprecedented about Cloud Atlas‘ production. All three of these directors worked together to complete a singular vision for the film. The Wachowskis directed the 1849, 2144, and 2321 segments, while Tykwer took on the 1936, 1973, and 2012 segments. It’s amazing, then, that the film feels as cohesive as it does. The transitions back and forth in time are never jarring, because it all feels like part of the same story.
I should probably mention just how Cloud Atlas works if you haven’t seen it (which you should!) It’s based on a 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. In it, we read the first half of a story called “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” which cuts off abruptly in the middle. From there, we go on to a story called “Letters from Zedelghem,” which at first seems unrelated. However, it is subtly established that the main character in “Letters” is reading “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Then “Letters” cuts off in the middle, and we’re off to the next story, the main character of which reads the titular “Letters” from the last story, and on and on, as each character is influenced by the previous. This goes on until the sixth story, which we read in its entirety, and then the last halves of each story are presented in reverse order until we read the last half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” to close out the book. If this sounds intimidating, don’t be alarmed. The book is quite good, and Mitchell has a good handle on each of the very distinct styles at play.
The movie, however, ditches this format entirely, choosing instead to interweave the stories together so that they’re all running at once. Granted, this sounds even more intimidating for an audience member, but I’m happy to say that it works wonderfully, mainly due to some truly spectacular editing work. In fact, I think the movie actually does a better job telling the story than the book does. Connections between the time periods are clearer, as is the way that one event impacts another. It’s clear that the filmmakers really understand the point of the source material, and more than that, they make it their own and do right by it in an original way. The movie isn’t too slavishly reverent to the book, nor is it dismissive of it. It strikes just the right balance. It takes enough from the book to communicate the story, but changes the right things to strengthen the themes.
There’s a lot going on in Cloud Atlas, so much that it’ll probably take most people multiple viewings to grasp it all. That’s by no means a bad thing, though. Cloud Atlas isn’t by any means a confusing movie, nor is it trying to be. It is just open enough about what it all means that you don’t feel bamboozled, but not so open that it’s cheesy and boring. So, yes, you’ll have to bring your thinking caps to this one. You’re an adult. Get over it.
Cloud Atlas, ultimately, is a loving tribute to the power of storytelling. The stories that each character experiences influence their decisions, and these decisions ultimately influence someone else many years down the line. Our actions have consequences that we can’t begin to imagine. I think that the biggest misconception about Cloud Atlas is the idea that it’s an anthology film, like V/H/S, made up of six stories all loosely connected by themes and actors. This is a complete misunderstanding of what the film is trying to communicate. Cloud Atlas is one story, which stretches over many, many centuries. It’s about the journey of a single soul through many bodies, and how history repeats itself if you fail to learn about it. In a more thematic sense, it’s about the struggle of the weak against the strong, and that the powerful often take advantage of those beneath them. It’s the story of humanity, really. All of humanity’s greatest myths and legends are about the underdog taking down a tyrant. Even many of the real-life stories we cherish cling to that framework.
“Hey, tone it down now!” you say. “Enough with the pretentious yammering. Talk about the movie stars!” I’ve gotta give props to every single actor who appears in this film, for agreeing to take the role and, for the most part, doing a phenomenal job with it. It’s an ensemble cast, but in a movie this large every member of it has to play at least four or five roles. And, surprisingly, nearly all of them work in nearly all of those roles. Tom Hanks is, as always, great, even when he’s wearing silly prosthetics and playing against type. Halle Berry is the only weak link in the cast, which was to be expected. She’s just not a good actor. She’s not awful, though. But when you’re on screen with Keith David, you’ve gotta step it up a little. Hugo Weaving, as I mentioned, is terrifying in all his roles. The directors explained that the recycling of the actors represented that “soul” travelling through time. Some of the souls, like Hanks’, eventually reform themselves and become good. Weaving is the only one who stays nasty and villainous throughout the entire film, and he does a great job at playing a variety of slimy, truly evil characters. James D’Arcy is the real standout here, though. I didn’t know about him before, but he knocked my socks off, particularly in his role as Rufus Sixsmith in both the 1936 and 1973 segments. His character is perhaps the most tragic, and he’s great at expressing his nervous, youthful love in 1936 and concealing his resigned misery in 1973. Jim Broadbent alternates between being hilarious and punchable. He’s a bit more cartoonish than the rest of the cast, though. Doona Bae was also something of a revelation, particularly as Sonmi-451. Her facial expressions alone clearly convey her character’s arc. I hope to see her in a lot more stuff after this.
I’d also like to take a paragraph to talk about the score. It’s not something I normally get into in my reviews, mostly because I’m far from an expert on music, but I really have to commend the composers of Cloud Atlas for creating a beautiful body of music that is just as emotionally affecting with the film as it is without it. I’m listening to the album (which I bought the minute I got back from the theater) as I write this review, and I’m amazed at how many times the music has made me remember the exact scene it was used in. That’s pretty rare for me, especially since I’ve only seen it twice. The composers (one of whom was Tom Tykwer, by the way) seem to totally understand that Cloud Atlas is only one story, not six separate ones, because the music is as cohesive as the film. There aren’t distinct sounds for each time period, there is just the “Cloud Atlas Theme,” and it is adapted to fit the emotions and rhythm of the scene at hand. It’s a pretty interesting direction to go in, one that I think many composers would not have. However, I think it’s really the only way you could compose the music for this particular film.
There’s a lot to say about Cloud Atlas, and I’ve barely scratched the surface here, despite the length of this review. I have never been more saddened at the box office failure of a film than I have been at this one. It’s not at all surprising, but it’s disappointing to someone like me that most people don’t want to take a chance on films like this. Cloud Atlas is truly, truly great. Like I said, it’s the best movie of the year by a country mile. Yesterday, I called Holy Motors “perfect.” Is Cloud Atlas perfect? I don’t think so. Instead, it’s something better than perfect, something that I don’t have a word for. If this was the only movie that existed, I’d be okay with that, because every kind of movie is in Cloud Atlas. It’s the sum total of everything that film as an art form has been building to for the amount of time that it has existed. Does that sound like hyperbole? Yes, of course it does. Will I look back on that sentence someday and cringe? Perhaps. Will I take it back? No. Go see Cloud Atlas. Support art, support vision, and above all support filmmaking. Because if we don’t occasionally have movies like Cloud Atlas, what’s the point of making them to begin with?