“A half finished book is, after all, a half finished love affair.”
After a four-year hiatus from the big screen, Andy & Lana Wachowski return to the director’s chair, this time joined by a rather unlikely kindred spirit, German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). To say that their latest film is a one of a kind epic of unbelievable spectacle and overwhelming ambition would be the understatement of the year. Their collaboration, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, is nothing short of one of the finest films I’ve ever seen.
The Wachowskis grabbed everyone’s attention back in 1996 with their neo-noir film debut, Bound, one of the best heist films of the 90’s, but it was their follow-up film, 1999’s The Matrix, that set the world on fire and re-defined action & sci-fi filmmaking. They fell from grace almost immediately, however, when that film’s 2003 sequels were, let’s say, less than well-received. Their last film, Speed Racer, was greeted with an equally cold reception, but like The Matrix sequels before it, have rightfully gained a cult following in the interim.
Tykwer had a very similar trajectory, though his star never rose to the heights of The Wachowskis, at least here in The US. He’s been doing director-for-hire work lately with films like 2009’s The International, and seemed just as unlikely to take us by surprise.
Cloud Atlas is a film that virtually defies description. It’s six tales, set over several hundred years, that are all inter-connected through various people and events. Nearly every actor in the film pulls sextette-duty with a role in every timeline: An 1850 high seas journey; a 1930 composer’s odyssey; a 1970 journalistic conspiracy tale; a 2012 farcical comedy; a 2140 science fiction escape adventure; and a far-future dystopian quest. It sounds so much more confusing than it actually is, and the ease with which the filmmakers weave these six tales together is mind-boggling.
The actors were all top-notch, pulling from some of the biggest stars in the world (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant) to journeymen character actors (Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David) to British heartthrobs (Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy) and stunning newcomers (Doona Bae, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi). Everyone is given at least one showcase role, and they all get a chance to shine. Bae was particularly dazzling in her scenes set in 2144 Neo Seoul, and Hanks is fantastic as always in virtually every role. They all get to play their fair share of good and evil characters, which is welcomed in a film like this. I can’t say anything good about any of the characters that Grant plays, but he’s much better at being despicable than I ever thought he could be, and Weaving excels at playing villains.
The two standouts in the cast for me, however, were Berry and Broadbent. Halle Berry is not an actress I’ve ever had a particular affinity for, but I thought she brought a wonderful, lived-in quality to her roles, especially when she plays the 70’s journalist, risking her life for a big scoop. Broadbent was also great throughout, but really shined in his present-day comedic scenes. His character’s predilection for the word “ruddy” always managed to make me laugh, and he proved to be one of many, many characters in this film worth rooting for.
While it’s hard to sum up the plot (make that borderline impossible), it’s the kind of film that works better when you don’t know all of the particulars. For a film that jumps around in time as much as this one does, it’s never frustrating. They cut away at major moments, but it’s almost always to another key part of the story, so you’re not focused on missing out on something. For as much as I fear this film will be ignored at award time, I truly hope it’s recognized for its superior editing. This is one of the best edited films I’ve ever seen.
One assurance I can give you is that it makes every effort to give the audience a satisfactory pay-off in a holistic manner. The scenes in the far future were hard to follow at first because of the tribal dialect the characters use, but after two or three scenes, you begin to keep pace. The same can be said for all of the little coincidences that pop up throughout. You’re rewarded for noticing every little thing, and it’s not often that you can say that about a film. Even though it runs close to three hours, it’s never boring, not even for a second, and the momentum that builds over the course of the film made the third act hugely satisfying.
Perhaps the saddest fact of all is that Cloud Atlas will likely not get the audience it deserves, particularly here in the US. Epic films that don’t feature Hobbits or aren’t directed by James Cameron don’t tend to draw big crowds, and that’s sad. That Tykwer & The Wachowskis were able to wrap up all of their loose ends and tell an epic story with a beginning, middle and end in under three hours is a miracle in and of itself. We live in an era that rewards sloth in filmmaking. Mediocre fare like the fourth Twilight book is broken up over two films with barely enough substance for one, and it’s greeted with record-shattering box office. However, when filmmakers have the integrity and fortitude to confine their ambitious vision to one film, it’s greeted with apathy.
I cannot recommend that you see Cloud Atlas enough. See it on as big a screen with as ear-drum-shattering sound as you can. You may not love it as much as I did, but I guarantee you’ll walk away from it feeling as though you’ve experienced something. And when is the last time you walked out of a theater thinking that?
GO Rating: 5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]