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Caleb Masters

Movie Review: Cloud Atlas Sails Sky High

Oct 29, 2012
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The Wachowski siblings have built a career on highly ambitious films such as The Matrix and V for Vendetta, and Cloud Atlas looks to be their biggest undertaking yet. The visionary pair has joined forces with director Tom Tykwer to tell a story that covers six storylines taking place over thousands of years and working with an ensemble cast featuring more than twelve actors. Suddenly the task in front of the three writers/directors seems far bigger in scope than any movie in the last quarter of a century at the least. Can this trio of writers/directors manage to pull off such a feat or is Cloud Atlas just a pretentious train wreck created by film makers who are in over their heads?

The story of Cloud Atlas redefines epic as it covers the lives of more than fifty characters through six storylines that take place in six different time periods. The six storylines include the story of a man sailing from pacific islands back to San Francisco in 1850, a young musician trying to piggy back off of another’s name and fortune to hit it big in the early twentieth century, a journalist investigating a corporate cover-up in the 1970s, a publisher who gets in too deep with the mafia in 2012, a woman trying to escape her enslavement in a futuristic Korea, and a man working with a woman to send a message to somewhere beyond the stars in a wasted post-apocalyptic world.

 Each of these storylines has parallels and connections, but for the most part each of them is telling a story separate from the others. What is most interesting about the storylines is how they are woven together. The movie spends the first hour or so (this movie hits the three hour mark) going through each story chronologically and sets them up. After the initial set up each of these storylines change back and forth not based on chronological order, but based on plot development. This certainly makes for a unique and engaging experience as each of these storylines help the others to paint the much grander picture this film is creating.

The story in this movie plays like an orchestra with each story being its own part, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. But in much the same way that a symphony brings together those individual parts to create great music, it is the these individual stories in harmony with each other that creates a grander story, something that is much greater and more beautiful.

The grand picture this film is more or less a story about humanity that includes themes and ideas about the human race as a whole, but also touches on the ideas of God and a greater hope that we as humans are always seeking. The Wachowski siblings are definitely not foreign to the ideas woven into this movie, but they manage to bring many of those ideas down to a level that most people can understand. Despite a couple of the stories that seemed a bit clunky and one that seems more than a little out of place, the Wachowskis and Tykwer actually manage to bring all of these stories together in a way that works beautifully.

Cloud Atlas’s narrative style is not the only thing that is ambitious. The movie uses the same core cast to play essentially every major (and even some minor) character in the movie. The star studded cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Keith David, Doona Bae, and Susan Sarandon. Many of these actors play leads in one of the stories and every one of them pops up more than once playing characters completely different than the one before. It is really interesting to track how some of these characters evolve over multiple lifetimes.

Tom Hanks is a great example of how his character changes lifetime to lifetime with each of them becoming less and less corrupt until he is actually the protagonist in the final storyline. It is a risky idea, but I would say that it more or less pays off as most of these actors really flex their proverbial acting muscles by pulling off characters that are very different from one another. Many of the characters in the film are a bit caricatured with little depth, but this movie is obviously going for scope so development of the individual characters was not a priority. While the lack of development of some characters is understandable it’s still a little sad because some of the people we meet in Cloud Atlas were interesting and seemed like they had a lot to offer.

This story is huge and has out of this world ambition, but it still manages to bring its philosophical and metaphysical ideas down to a practical level that almost everyone can understand through these characters.

The creative team of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer succeeds on all of the fundamental levels such as the execution of the story and the writing of the characters. They even manage to deliver an incredibly moving score (composed by Tykwer himself) that feels like a character in the film on its own. Their direction is incredible because they are able to pull this leviathan of a movie off in the first place, but unfortunately the movie fails in some of the smaller details.

One notable flaw that took me out of the experience several times was the hit or miss use of make-up effects. At times the make-up is incredible and even Oscar worthy, but the decision was made to have actors play characters who were of a different race or ethnicity. The make-up jobs in these situations range from bad to laughable. This is most notable on the white people who are playing Koreans where some of the make-up work is passable while other examples completely take you out of the experience. They have African American playing Caucasians and Asians, Asians playing Caucasians, and Caucasians playing any race in the movie and it just does not look good all around.  Aside from this bad call on the directors’ part I think their vision is beautiful and clearly articulated in the movie.

Overall Cloud Atlas is a movie that is able to pull six storylines together and make them play off each other in a way that actually reveals a greater story about mankind. The writers/directors manage to successfully bring all of these elements to make something so huge and seemingly ridiculous work on a level that most people will be able to follow. One thing that may be an issue with many viewers is the message that this film is sending. The movie clearly has some ideas it wants the audience to understand and whether or not a viewer will like the movie as a whole may sink or swim based on whether or not they agree with the ideas the movie is expressing.

In the end Cloud Atlas is a momentous experiment that manages to succeed and do something unlike anything we have seen before on the big screen. This accomplishment alone is worth the price of admission.

 

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