True ambition is a very rare thing in the cinema these days. Some would argue that putting a bunch of superheroes in a film together is ambitious, or taking a comic book character and giving them a shot of reality, but ambition implies the possibility of failure, the chance that it all might come to a crashing end. It is very rare that a film reaches towards the stars and actually extends its reach into something ecstatic and difficult to define, and often times, we don’t realise, or refuse to realise, when such a thing has happened. There is absolutely no doubt that ‘Cloud Atlas’, the collaboration between Lana and Andy Wachowski, the creators of The Matrix Trilogy, and Tom Tykwer, the German director of ‘Run Lola Run’ (1998), makes such an attempt. Just look at its sprawling six-minute trailer, which barely contains the scope of the film. Everything about ‘Cloud Atlas’ suggests something epic, something sweeping, and something that could either be sublime or disastrous.
Adapted from David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel, ‘Cloud Atlas’ tells six stories, spread across different continents and hundreds of years. Each is distinct from the next, and often never narratively connect, making the film hard to summarise. What does hold them together is a grand theme, the idea that everything in human existence is connected, that actions we commit in one life can send ripples through our past and future. That makes it sound like we’re dealing with religion and reincarnation, but that would be simplifying the ideas the material explores into something easily defined. A core ensemble of accomplished actors work across all six narratives, often inhabiting characters of different races, cultures and genders than their own, following the arc of a thematic concept between each character across time and space. These are the basic principles under which the narrative of ‘Cloud Atlas’ functions, and though each story by itself would never be enough to carry the weight of a film, they complement and culminate to create a thematic, rather than a narrative, whole.
If this seems like a complex proposition, you aren’t wrong, and everything is set-up for ‘Cloud Atlas’ to collapse under its own weight. Add to that three directors working with two separate crews, including two cinematographers, major film units shooting concurrently on multiple continents, actors moved around between each, and one poor editor having to contend with all the material... this film should not work at all. Yet, against all logic and reason, these impossible circumstances culminate to create a film the likes of which we haven’t seen in a very long time. Somehow, ‘Cloud Atlas’ turns out to be magnificent.
There’s not much to say about the craftsmanship of this film, other than it presents some of the most dynamic artists working today at the top of their games. Audiences have been waiting for Tykwer and the Wachowskis to follow up on the promise of their 90s hits, but collectively they achieve a sense of the cinematic that far exceeds their previous work. Their various directing styles come together beautifully, and the eclectic styles and genres never clash against one another. It also helps that the trio worked together on the screenplay, a superb juggling act in itself, a perfect balance between philosophical musings, ridiculous comedy and pure poetic emotion. All the technical elements are in total harmony in ‘Cloud Atlas’, from the stunning cinematography and the miraculous editing, to the tremendous feat of production and make-up design, to the sublime orchestral score - so much so that, unlike most films, there isn’t one element more impressive than the other. The same can be said for the astounding actors they have assembled. Even with such talents as Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy and Susan Sarandon, you can’t single out one performance being better than another. This may be due to the ease and fluidity with which each moves between characters and times, and the balance between who-plays-whom means that there is no driving protagonist to ‘Cloud Atlas’, no lead star. It is one of the truest examples of an ensemble we have seen in many years, and functions as a true ensemble should, as cogs in a large machine, all calibrated perfectly to create something unique.
Where the film soars is in its sweeping emotional scope, a symphonic exploration of birth, life and death; past, present and future; love, hate and sacrifice.
With all these pieces in play, however, ‘Cloud Atlas’ somehow transcends its filmmaking to become something much more overpowering. Where the film soars is in its sweeping emotional scope, a symphonic exploration of birth, life and death; past, present and future; love, hate and sacrifice. It’s so rare to find a film that dares to tackle the breadth of the human condition, and often times, when a film does try, it fails dismally or is instantly rejected. Not since 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy has the visual possibilities of cinema and technology been utilised with such breathtaking scope, but the true epic sweep of ‘Cloud Atlas’ comes with its emotional scope, as each narrative draws towards their crescendos, always a matter of life and death, and equal parts inspiring and devastating. Over its almost three-hour running time, which never lags in the slightest, it dares to pose to us the question of what it is to be human, to be alive, to love and to die and to fight for the right to exist. It’s not often a film has the guts to tackle something so impossible but so important.
Many people are not going to like this film. That certainly isn’t their fault; film is an incredibly personal experience, especially when it deals with these kinds of themes. That also doesn’t mean, however, that there’s something wrong with ‘Cloud Atlas’. We are incredibly cynical audiences, and the conceit of the film could easily be interpreted as pretentious or rambling or dull. This is one of those films that you either love or you hate, and if the U.S. box office is anything to go by, audiences haven’t found a connection with this film. But then again, the same happened with ‘Blade Runner’. And ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. And ‘The Fountain’. All these films have since become, or are starting to be considered, classics, and the common thread between them and this film is that they explore the same ideas of humanity and existence. ‘Cloud Atlas’ comes from a striking lineage, but not always one initially embraced or celebrated.
There is so much you could cover with this film, hence why this review is as long as it is, but a film like ‘Cloud Atlas’ is almost impossible to summarise. This is the kind of film that comes along very rarely, a true work of cinema that reminds us of what this medium is actually capable of. Many will disagree with me on this film; this isn’t a film for everyone, but it never tries to be anything other than what it is. In the opinion of this humble reviewer, however, that ‘Cloud Atlas’ was everything I wanted and much, much more. It is a true work of art with a message that ripples through your heart and soul, of how hard and impossible and sublime it is to be alive. It demonstrates exactly what cinema is capable of, the overwhelming artistic and emotional scope it can encompass, pushing it as far as seems possible. For me, ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a miracle, a masterpiece, and one of the greatest films ever made.