Friday, July 5, 2013

Living Up To The Hype: Cloud Atlas Is Smart And Complex!

The Good: Wonderful acting, Great make-up and effects, Creative concept, Decent plots
The Bad: Misses some important events/deliberately obscure at points.
The Basics: Told in six distinct time periods, Cloud Atlas follows the reincarnated variations of several characters who interact to change and save the world or humanity through their actions, beliefs, or art.

When I miss a movie in theaters these days, there are remarkably few I pine for and make an immediate effort to see when they are released on DVD; it’s the nature of being a reviewer, there is always something new to see, review, and promote. So, when I missed Cloud Atlas theatrically, it says something about my level of interest that I managed to get it in to watch so soon after its DVD release. The truth is, it was a film I wanted very much to see and given how many preview trailers I saw of it, I was pleasantly surprised how much of the film there still was to be seen (it’s a long movie). In fact, my only gripe with the promotions for the film was that the key voiceovers that explain much of the thematic points and narrative structure were included in the trailers.

Cloud Atlas is based upon a novel that I have not read and thus this is a very pure review of the film alone. With Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis have now redeemed themselves for Speed Racer (reviewed here!) and they once again prove they have the magic touch for making films that are visually incredible and tell stories about humans overcoming amazing odds and all forms of oppression. The film, however, is long and gory with a climax that sees the demise of so many of the characters that when I, in a moment of wonder at the movie, exclaimed, “How the hell did this movie ever lose money?!” my wife glared at me pretty heavily.

Cloud Atlas is a rare film that is not easy to discuss without giving away major spoilers. However, in defying my usual format, I won’t spoil virtually anything in the film by foregoing the usual plot summary. Cloud Atlas has an interwoven narrative structure that leaps very abruptly between six different time periods. As a result, there is little point trying to discuss any single narrative at length because one of the fundamental points of Cloud Atlas is that many of the main characters are related and interact as different incarnations of themselves in each of the different generations.

Told from the perspective of a man in the distant future, Cloud Atlas flashes back to and meanders through the intertwined stories of a lawyer who is part of a slaving mission and is being poisoned by the ship’s doctor on his way back home, a young composer studying at the feet of an aged composer who is not nearly as talented as he is, an investigative reporter digging into a story on a nuclear reactor in 1973 and all the corporate forces working to stop her from exposing the dangers of the facility, a publisher who is on the run from murderous hooligans when his previously unsuccessful author gains overnight success after killing a book critic, a cloned worked in the future who is given the chance to becomes something much more than she is when her “programming” fails, and a primitive man living on an island after what is essentially the apocalypse who must help a civilized woman reach the nearby ruins of the long-lost civilization, while avoiding cannibals and his own inner demons. Laced between the threads is a musical work that many of the characters create/remember/dream of or otherwise share and the themes of humans in oppressive situations fighting to overcome the political and social conditions that keep themselves and others enslaved.

Cloud Atlas is a film that demands to be watched as it is packed with details (like the idea that the clone in the future story is the deity worshipped in the most distant future timeline!) and the directors bounce between time periods assuming the viewers are keeping up. I liked how each time period had its own dialect and while that frustrated my wife, I found it engaging to sit and mentally translate the concepts both past and future. Cloud Atlas does not slow down to explain itself, but almost all of the keys one needs to understand the film are present on screen. In fact, the only glaring omission for me was that the disaster in the future that led to the technological reversion in the most distant time period was not shown.

What makes Cloud Atlas worth watching is simple; while it plays to the same old themes the Wachowskis (who co-wrote – or adapted – and directed Cloud Atlas with Tom Tykwer) are known for, they make the struggle for freedom and dignity feel fresh again. Visually, the film is a marvel with seamless CG animals, amazing sound effects and make-up that should have won many, many more awards than it did (never have so many great actors worked so hard to be utterly unrecognizable and not trade at all on their celebrity!). Cloud Atlas lives up to the heights one expects from the Wachowskis when it comes to the quality of making big, bold, films.

The real story of why to watch Cloud Atlas is in the way the directors get amazing performances out of the entire cast. While greatness is expected of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving, younger cast members like Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, James D’Arcy and Ben Whishaw hold their own with an apparently effortless ability. The cast is incredible and well-utilized (though poor Hugo Weaving needs to appear in a Wachowski film as something other than a villain!) and they are so engrossing in their performances that even for the recognizable actors, it is very easy to get drawn into their characters and forget anything outside the world of Cloud Atlas.

Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is engaging, clever and utilizes the film medium exceptionally well, making it well worth watching . . . more than once!

For other films with Jim Broadbent, be sure to check out my takes on:
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe
Nicholas Nickleby
Gangs Of New York
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Smilla’s Sense Of Snow
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol


For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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