Movie Review: CLOUD ATLAS Is Overwhelming, Odd And Utterly, Completely Amazing

The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have created a seminal movie of the 21st century. 

Writing this review after only one viewing of Cloud Atlas feels foolish, like taking a calculus test after only finishing basic addition and subtraction. I walked out of the theater, three hours after the movie started, feeling overwhelmed and moved and almost physically stunned by what I had seen. But mostly overwhelmed; at such a length, with so many stories weaving back and forth, and with so much to say, the new film from the Wachowskis (with Tom Tykwer) hits like you a tidal wave of cinema art, threatening to drown you if you’re unprepared.

There are many achievements in Cloud Atlas, but perhaps the greatest is the way the film manages that tidal wave of information and emotion, allowing you to follow along with a narrative that ping pongs across centuries. Speed Racer was a miracle of modern editing, a hyperkinetic barrage that managed to remain comprehensible, understanding how modern audiences process visual information. Cloud Atlas leaves behind the hyperkinetic elements but still understands how we process information, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer have faith that the audience can, and will, keep up. The miracle at the heart of Cloud Atlas is that it’s so sprawling, so dense, so interconnected but never confusing, never leaves the audience behind.

Once again the Wachowskis are pushing all of cinema forward, rewriting the language of visual storytelling.

Not every viewer will take to Cloud Atlas as I did. I can foresee many of the complaints about the film, and most of them are - to be honest - valid. It is often over-earnest. It does, on occasion, edge right up to camp. The make-up effects are wildly inconsistent. Some of the accents and acting choices are problematical. But all of the complaints about the film will boil down to one thing that I can never see as a negative:

They tried to do too much.

I actually think they accomplished what they were trying to do. The word I would use for this movie is audacious. This is the boldest sort of filmmaking, and Cloud Atlas is a movie that throws every single thing out on screen and gives 200% effort. That can make the moments that fail feel like bodyblows, but it also makes the moments that work - and there are way more of those - transcendent.

And if there are bits that don’t work, who cares? Do you critique a record-breaking runner on each of his steps, calling attention to his small stumbles? Or do you look at the entirety of the achievement with awe and wonder? Because yes, there are stumbles in Cloud Atlas, but as a whole it is a remarkable, astonishing work of clear eyed vision and extraordinary optimism.

I have not read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel upon which the film is based, but I understand it’s one of those books that people see as unadaptable. At first glance the concept - six discreet yet subtly connected stories set from the Pacific in the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic Earth in the distant future - it seems as uncinematic a story as possible. Mitchell’s book presents each story as a half, moving forward through time, until it boomerangs back again, presenting the concluding half of each story, going backwards chronologically back to the 1840s.

That is not how the movie works. The movie opens with a series of quick sequences establishing each of the six stories, and then from there pings back and forth between them, transitions being dictated by on-screen action and theme. We might jump from Neo Seoul of 2144 to Belgium in the 1930s to San Francisco of 1975, and each transition could be dictated by a screen movement - a car turns right in 1975 and we jump to a hovercar coming into frame in 2144 - or by echoes between characters - a jailbreak in 2012 transitions us to a jailbreak in 2144 which transitions us to a chase in the post-Apocalypse. This is thrilling stuff, and the film masterfully builds to each transition, sometimes giving us just a scene, sometimes giving us a whole sequence, sometimes giving us simply a glimpse, before moving on.

But it’s like music - like the Cloud Atlas Sextet written in the 1930 segment, a piece for overlapping soloists - and each segment is like an instrument or a musical phrase, playing off of other sounds and melodies, coming together and falling apart rhythmically and beautifully. This alone, the way the film is structured and moves within itself, marks Cloud Atlas as one of the great pictures of the 21st century so far.

Thankfully there’s more to it than that. The structure itself is brave, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer doubled down on that. Over the course of their six separate-yet-connected stories they have placed an ensemble cast of just over a half-dozen leads in multiple roles. Most of the actors show up in every single story, often transformed by practical make-up effects. Halle Berry is a Samoan woman, an Indian partygoer, an old Korean male doctor, a futuristic archeologist. Tom Hanks is a salty ship’s surgeon, a post-Apocalyptic villager, an Irish streetfighting man. Hugo Weaving appears as everything from a demonic vision to a Korean villain to a Nurse Ratched type - yes, a woman. Again and again the actors pop up, sometimes anchoring the stories, sometimes just appearing momentarily in the scene.

It’s one of the bravest choices the film could have made. It’s a huge decision, one upon which the success of the entire movie hinges. No actor is ever unrecognizable (although that’s part of the point, and thematically it’s important that these faces keep reappearing over the centuries), although sometimes the make-up is distracting. When done up as a white woman in the 1840s Korean actress Doona Bae just looks weird. And sometimes the accents don’t quite work; while Hanks’ make-up as brawler/author Dermot “Duster” Hoggins makes him look exactly like the Brundleflied mating of Bob Hoskins and Ben Kingsley, his horrible, cartoonish accents undercuts his scene.

Some people will get hung up on these things, but they’re missing the point. Hanks’ bit as “Duster” is short, as is Bae’s turn as a white woman. The main actors in each segment are uniformly perfect, delivering performances that are nuanced and often heartbreaking. What’s great is that the six stories have different tones, giving each actor the opportunity to try something a little different in each segment. Tom Hanks gets to be really broad as the ship doctor in the 1840s, but is absolutely wonderful as the villager carving out a life 106 winters “After the Fall.”

Halle Berry is incredibly strong in the 1975 segment, which casts her as a journalist on the trail of a conspiracy surrounding a nuclear power plant, and Doona Bae is incredible as a fabricant (read: clone) in 2144 who helps begin a revolution in human thinking. Hugh Grant has a wonderful turn as a sleazy 70s guy. Tom Hanks has such a wide palette with which to play that you’re immediately reminded why he’s one of our great modern movie stars. James D’Arcy and Jim Sturgess also do remarkable work - including in the 2144 segment where they are both under heavy Korean make-up jobs. Everyone is great (although some of them aren’t great in every segment, to be fair).

While everyone has a moment to truly shine in the film, a couple of actors are especially magnificent. Jim Broadbent gives two astonishing performances in the film, one dramatic and one delightfully comic. In the 1930 segment he is Vyvyan Ayrs, a world famous composer rotting away in his mansion, while in the 2012 segment he’s Timothy Cavendish, a less than heroic book publisher who ends up involuntarily committed to an old folks home. He pops up in other segments - a boat captain, a blind violinst, a futuristic human - but these two are where he truly gets to show off, and he gets to show off in very distinctly different fashions. I’m not an Oscars guy, but this feels like an Oscar-winning performance to me.

There’s another amazing standout, though: Ben Whishaw is shattering as Robert Frobisher, a rent boy who finally finds an outlet for his stunning musical genius only to see it torn from him. The stories in Cloud Atlas can be uneven - the Pacific 1840s story is sort of dorky, and the Wachowskis might be too in love with the scifi action in the Neo Seoul segment to make the larger message have enough impact - but the Frobisher piece is certainly the standout bit of brilliance in the whole film. It destroyed me, leaving me crying silently as it wrapped up.

In terms of stories that I loved, the post-Apocalyptic segment truly sent me. Everyone speaks a pidgin English that feels like a Creole variation on Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, and the savage design of the future is thrilling. Tom Hanks is Zachry, a lowly dweller in the valley, whose people are often under attack by cannibalistic Kona (led by an unrecognizable Hugh Grant). They are visited occasionally by members of an outside society, the Prescients, who are the last vestiges of technologically advanced humanity - everyone else has abandoned a dying Earth for the stars. This and the Frobisher story both left me wanting more in the best way possible, as each created worlds in which I wanted to luxuriate and spend time. In the future Halle Berry wears a very Queen Amidala-esque white jumpsuit, but the Wachowskis aren’t really riffing on the Star Wars movies. They’re just creating something else huge and epic and engrossing.

The whole movie is epic. This is a film that is epic in the old-fashioned sense, an epic that spans not just time and the map but the very geography of the human soul. In many ways Cloud Atlas is the ultimate atheist film, as it posits your afterlife being not a continuation of your consciousness but an eternal reverberation of your own little solo. Actors reappear to represent a resurfacing of... what? Souls, if you’re into that. Problems and ideas and hopes and dreams, if you’re more secular. In Cloud Atlas every crime and every kindness echoes across time, and the actions of a man in 1840 leads to a global change in consciousness 200 years later. It’s a simple sentiment when spelled out like that, but in action in the film it has a breathtaking meaning.

Cloud Atlas is sometimes silly, and it’s sometimes pretentious and it’s sometimes overstuffed. But every single one of those things, to me, is a positive. It’s an exceptional piece of filmmaking, one of the bravest works I have ever seen. The Wachowskis have followed the poorly received final two Matrix films and the bomb of Speed Racer with a three hour meditation on the nature of human interaction, featuring a few actors in many make-ups. Some may see that as self-destructive, but I see it as incredibly heroic.

I walked out of Cloud Atlas utterly overwhelmed. Days later I’m still processing it. It’s a movie I could write about for days, the kind of film where each shot, each transition, is worthy of discussion and dissection. I haven't even touched on the way that the telling of stories - through letters, memoirs, movies, manifestos - is used to speak about our endless human connection. There are so many aspects of the film I've only brushed past in this review, giving scant words to magnificent things.

I can’t wait to see it again. Until I do I’ll hold on to the feeling this movie gave me, an incredible sense of hope for the future of cinema. And the future of humanity. How many movies give you that?