Combining arthouse ambition with studio production value, Cloud Atlas is an existentialist Rubik's cube with commercial sensibilities; a beguiling tale of reborn souls meeting over again across time and space, spun into a sprawling tapestry about what connects us as human beings... or, you know, something like that.
In 1849 a young aristocrat returns home from an expedition to the slave colonies in the Pacific rim. In 1936 a young music writer keeps correspondence with his gay lover as he helps an aging composer put his melodies to sheet. In 1973 an investigative journalist uncovers a nefarious conspiracy between big oil and nuclear power. In 2012 a book editor seeks refuge from Irish thugs only to be committed to a rest home. In 2044 a genetically engineered servant in the dystopic Neo Seoul becomes the key face of an underground revolution. In the distant post-apocalyptic future, warring tribes fight for survival as a more technologically advanced visitor comes with a mysterious mission.
What do these separate sagas have to do with each other? Its fragmented ideas may not be easy to penetrate in a single viewing, but for a 3-hour movie, it's surprisingly easy to sit through. A collection of different genres – from high seas adventure to sci-fi to thriller to dark comedy – ensures that there's something for everybody. The individual stories themselves are entertaining enough (some more so than others) to maintain engagement, even though the supposed connectivity between the multitude of characters and story trends is only transparent in fits and starts.
The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer make a dynamic team to bring David Mitchell's “unfilmable” novel to the screen. Indeed, the sheer logistical challenge of weaving together the book's six disjointed narratives while attempting to elucidate their thematic unions is a task they should be applauded just for attempting. Even if they cannot tie all six into a whole epiphany, similarities between pairs of story arcs are drawn clearly at various points throughout their progression. One of the trio's innovations that makes this possible – indeed, the whole conceit of the enterprise – is the casting of the same actors in multiple parts. It's actually quite a hoot spotting the cast members in their various guises throughout the ages. Credit makeup designers Daniel Parker and Jeremy Woodhead for the quantity and quality of their extensive work. True, not everything they come up with is entirely convincing (there's only so Asian you can make a white guy look), but conversely, some of their creations render the actor beneath so unrecognizable that you won't realize it was them until the end credits' role call.
The hit-and-miss nature of the subplots' connectedness (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, there's a certain undefinable humanity that underlies Cloud Atlas that makes it a fascinating project, one that certainly merits multiple looks. The filmmakers and actors are able to transcend superficial details such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality to present us with an array of characters who we come to identify by their souls rather than their bodies. Obviously, a lot of what you take away from the movie will have to do with what you bring to it, but there's more than enough to mull over in here. If it weren't for the film's box office woes it'd be rightly classified as a philosophical blockbuster, but I'm sure it'll eventually find its audience in time.
**1/2 out of ****