Risk is all but avoided in modern cinema. The studios tread in safely worn trenches, taking a chance only rarely, content to rehash and repeat past successes, content only to provide that which is familiar. That we have a film as ambitious as “Cloud Atlas” at all is something of a miracle. That it is one of the best films of the year even more miraculous.
The film is a collection of six stories, each at first seemingly separate, but revealed to be connected in significant ways as things unfold. Spanning from the 19th century all the way to a post-apocalyptic future, each story shows how a single act can change the course of history.
In one story, an American notary, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), befriends a stowaway slave, Autua (David Gyasi). In another, a clone waitress, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), is rescued by a revolutionary (Sturgess) and sparks a revolution. In another, Zachry (Tom Hanks), a farmer living in a post-apocalyptic world, helps Meronym (Halle Berry), one of the last members of a technologically-advanced race send a communiqué.
Zachry is a follower of the teachings of Sonmi, now revered as a Goddess. In another, an investigative journalist (Berry) attempts to uncover the potentially disastrous machinations of a corporation.
The stories (all being relayed by Zachry, whose campfire recollections bookend the film) jump around often and with little warning that a transition is coming. It can be a little jarring at first, but the film soon establishes its own rhythm. It's a testament to the skill of Andy and Lana Wachowski (yes, they who brought us “The Matrix” trilogy and the overlooked brilliance of “Speed Racer”) and their co-director, Tom Twyker, that it never once feels jarring or inappropriate. The film ebbs and flows unlike any film I've seen, moving from time period to time period, each one as distinct as the next.
The other precarious balancing act is having the cast members play multiple roles throughout the six stories. It's a wild, perhaps even dangerous, concept, especially with the decision to blend nationality, gender and even race. Hugo Weaving (whose characters are villains in each of his appearances) plays a corporate hitman, a Korean, a devil and a burly, female nursing home attendant, while Doona Bae plays a Mexican and an Anglo Saxon wife in addition to her role as Sonmi.
It's a bold decision, and one that could have very easily felt cheap, exploitive, distracting and ultimately disastrous, but the direction is so confident and the acting so superlative that it feels like anything but those things. I actually can't imagine the film working as well as it does were it crafted any other way, to say nothing of the consistently exceptional performances. There are moments when the prosthetics can be a bit overbearing, but by and large the cast does an incredible job of finding the heart of each story with often wildly different characters.
That boldness of confidence was imperative here as they and Twyker deliver a film that weaves a tale that at first feels unnecessarily strung together. But once you see how the pieces fit and how all of these stories are connected, it becomes an essential structural decision.
“Cloud Atlas” is a film with a simple conceit: that we, as human beings, do not live in a vacuum, that our lives, whether we realize it or not, are connected to something larger, to something greater and more significant than our immediate existence, and that when we choose to act with kindness and love it will have an affect the breadth of which we cannot possibly fathom.
In other words: everything is connected, even in ways we could never expect, and the manner in which it (often suddenly) hops from story to story, from time period to wildly distant time period only serves to emphasize that notion, offering small, subtle connections that show how even people millennia apart are still connected.
It's rare that we get a film with such a positive, life-affirming message delivered in such a breathtaking, sweeping fashion and that never once feels manipulative or maudlin. There have been plenty of films touting the message of “SEE HOW WE'RE ALL CONNECTED,” but none have felt as honest and genuine as what is delivered here.
“Cloud Atlas” is also a gorgeous film, with cinematography by John Toll and Frank Griebe, each era and story has its own distinct look yet it is bound by a cinematic consistency that is remarkable.
“Cloud Atlas” is the rare piece of cinema that pushes boundaries, that shows what cinema is truly capable of when in the hands of artists unafraid to take risks and create on a wide canvas. I'm not sure I could call it a perfect film, but it reaches out for greatness in a way that so few films seem able to these days.
If you consider yourself a lover of cinema, a lover of art, there is no film currently in theaters more deserving of your support and consideration than this one.