4 / 5 stars
If a film’s entertainment value were measured by volume of storylines, variety of styles and frequency of timeline trekking, Cloud Atlas would be entertaining beyond definition. But it takes more than bursting-at-the-seams narrative to make a great movie; good thing, then, that directors Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis have created a film that transcends its heft, adapting David Mitchell’s mega-novel into a brisk, cinematic showcase of excitement and surprises. (Click on the movie poster for a larger view.)
The key is not to take Cloud Atlas too seriously. If you try to invest yourself in the sci-fi framework or the Wachowski-esque philosophical theory, you’ll be too busy chewing on sand rather than eating up the goodies. And there’s plenty to digest here: Six stories ranging in time from 1849 to the mid-2300s, each tale a different movie genre complete with familiar references and newfangled twists, with actors playing multiple characters across the universe, over and over again. The influences are everywhere, and sometimes obvious. Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, Merchant-Ivory… hell, the Wachowskis even lift from themselves.
If Cloud Atlas sounds as burdensome as Atlas carrying the heavens, that tendency — and that tedium — often threatens to weaken the experience, leaving the overwhelming a little too underwhelming. But there’s a passionate movie energy that pervades the film, inviting viewers to give in and just cruise through its cosmic circuitry.
Though the lead actors inhabit a multitude of stories — Tom Hanks and Halle Berry show up in six roles each — the screenplay doesn’t rely on typical character crossover time-travel tricks. Instead, the connective tissue within the Cloud Atlas world tends to exist in small details you might miss if you blink, with the universe moving along as one giant, ongoing parallel edit.
So in the bowels of a pre-Civil War ship, there’s a knock at the door. Cut to another door being opened in 2144 Seoul, where a revolutionary sentry protects an unlikely heroine. The relationship isn’t literal though, it’s symbolic, with actions in one environment leading to responses in another time, another place, another story. Tykwer and The Wachowskis are contemplating the repetition of history, the interconnectedness and singular existence of us all. That’s all fine and dandy, but the action works from a purely technical standpoint, as the editing rhythm yields a near-constant feeling of anticipation. Within the standard tempo of any edited scene, we may end up jumping away to any one of five other stories, and stay for an undefined amount of time.
If there’s a particular story that doesn’t hold your attention, then just hang on. There’s danger on the high seas, 1970s private eye paranoia, neo-Asian anti-government action… still, one of the biggest and most humorous crowd-pleasers in the film involves a literary agent (Jim Broadbent, in one of three starring roles) who finds himself unexpectedly held hostage in an old-folks home and under the thumb of a brutal, big-chested he-she nurse (Hugo Weaving). With three elderly accomplices, the old salt makes a break for it, leading to cheers and one of the world’s most endearing barroom brawls.
With so many pieces and parts flying around, it’s tough to figure out where Cloud Atlas begins and ends, and how to identify which longer scenes are superfluous, and which shorter tastes are truly indispensable. But it shouldn’t matter. It’s far better to just follow it all along as it comes, heeding the suggestion of Hanks’ sputtering, post-apocalyptic Zachry, who forms the film’s bookends by saying in old-man pidgin: “Listen close, and I’ll yarn you…” And darned well, I’d say.