Cloud Atlas (2013) – Review

After Ang Lee’s majestic Life Of Pi, Andy and Lana Wachowski (creators of The Matrix trilogy), sharing directing duties with Tom Tykwer, continue the current trend of filming “unfilmable” books with their latest groundbreaking labyrinth of a film, Cloud Atlas.  Bringing such a complex source material to the screen is a daunting task, and I have nothing but respect for those who made it happen. 

Intertwining six separate yet seemingly connected stories from past, present and future, Cloud Atlas is an exhibition in magical, loopy and ambitious storytelling.  A multitude of powerful and insightful ideas are presented through each story, all of which culminate to one central idea: that our lives are not our own.  It explores the possibility that our actions affect events in the future and that our souls are dictated by our actions from the past.   It questions morality and the possibility of life after death, implies that we are all distantly connected through the ages and reborn, not just on our own planet, but in galaxies foreign to us.  It questions faith and argues the very existence of life.  In other words, it leaves you with plenty to think about.

Whether it’s being shouted or just hinted at, it’s quite tough to fully wrap your head around all of these ideas and it will probably require at least two viewings to fully comprehend.  But therein lies a problem.  The film runs at nearly three hours, which is understandable given how many different plots it has to cram in, and while admittedly it never drags, it does need some kind of larger payoff for the time you have to invest in it.  There is a certain amount of ‘wrapping up’ that goes on towards the end, but there wasn’t enough spectacle.  It constantly threatens to award us with some big emotional payoff, but it just never quite comes, and that I found to be the most disappointing thing.

On a more positive note, one of the best things about the film is the that it treats the audience as if they have half a brain and never slows down to compensate for the complexities of the plot(s). It’s frustrating when the filmmakers (or studio heads behind them) feel the need to ‘dumb down’ ideas to make them more understandable to the masses, because that negates the very reason for having these kind of ideas in the first place.  When a director presents me with something like this, I want to be allowed to decipher it for myself and sometimes draw my own conclusions, and that’s exactly what the Wachowski’s and Tykwer allow us to do here.

One of many, many Hanks characters

The enormous ensemble cast, including the talents of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess and Susan Sarandon, are all just excellent, despite being stuck with the difficult task of playing multiple roles in extremely varying circumstances.  Each of them has essentially had to prepare for several movies in the time space of one, which is a lot easier said than done.  Tom Hanks is a particular standout, which isn’t surprising, because it’s Tom Hanks.

Some stories work better than others.  The 70s San Francisco plot, for example, which focuses on Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey, feels less important than Doona Bae and Jim Strugress’ 22nd century Seoul, which is actually one of the driving forces of the entire film.  Even though both stories are given roughly the same amount of screen time, only the latter is given an equal amount of attention.  It sounds unfair to say that since the San Francisco section does serve a purpose – of course it does – but it just feels a bit less important than some of the others.  Just a little more balance would have served it well.

The script, penned by the three directors, is a thing of beauty.  It’s delicate, intricate, controlled, and everything a script needs to be.  Adapting such a complex and contorted story into a coherent screen narrative is a task feared by even the best writers, but that’s what has been achieved here.  And you’d be wrong if you thought adapting a book was easy because the story is already there; if anything, it’s even harder because you’re tethered to someone else’s ideas.  You can’t take the characters wherever you want them to go.

Yet that script, as beautifully and skillfully written as it is, lacks emotional power.  As hard as it tries, it just fails to invest us enough in the any of the worlds, building and building and building towards something spectacular that it never quite delivers, and in the end there just isn’t enough there to make you want to come back.  There are nuggets of gold if you know where to look, but they’re scattered, and if you can’t find any them it’s a rather hollow way to spend three hours.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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