Here is one of the most ambitious films of all-time. That isn’t hyperbole; it’s fact. That the film doesn’t fall flat on its face by the end of its interweaving 163 minutes is enough to get me to say, “See this movie now,” but even if it did, I would probably recommend seeing it anyway. After all, that way, you’ll better understand why people on both sides of critical opinion feel the way they do about it.
First of all, let me just say that I think this is the best movie the Wachowskis, Andy and Lana, have ever done. (And yes, that includes “The Matrix.”) And mixing their own brand of visual storytelling with the more ponderous moods of co-writer and co-director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run,” “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”) makes for a startling narrative experience in and of itself. This is not a case of having too many cooks in the kitchen; with six, equally-complicated stories to tell (from David Mitchell’s novel, which was considered “unfilmable”), the more the merrier, in fact.
This is a film that demands multiple viewings, and– I’m sure –rewards them as well. (I’ve only seen it once, thus far.) Its scope is, truly, epic, as it weaves between six, separate (yet, oddly interlocking) stories of love, death, betrayal, hope, and everything in between. All of these stories deal with fundamental human nature, and choice. The choices we make for love, for fame, for the betterment of mankind. This is a movie about big events, but brought down to a personal level that recalls a symphony, which can start dramatically; will occasionally go through lulls and moments of repetition; and later achieves an almost tranquil thoughtfulness, before reaching a finale that can be as exhilarating in its emotional impact as it is in its technicality. That is “Cloud Atlas” in a nutshell.
The musical comparison is important in another way, because music plays a powerful part in the film itself. The score is by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, and co-director Tom Tykwer, who himself, wrote the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” the composition that plays an important part in one of the film’s stories, where a young man (Ben Whishaw) leaves his lover (James D’Arcy) to serve as apprentice to a great composer (Jim Broadbent), and is so inspired that he writes the “Sextet,” which his mentor considers a masterwork, and threatens to take as his own. But no great score can be boiled down to just one composition, although Tykwer’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” is the piece from which the entire soundtrack eminates, and the result is the most thrilling use of music by any film this year, and in fact, in a good many years. The last time a score had such a profound impact on the overall effect of the film itself was in 2006’s “The Fountain,” which was another film about interlocking stories from different points in human history.
The film covers hundreds of years, as far back as 1849, and as far forward as 2346. The filmmakers move between these stories with a remarkable ease that recalls D.W. Griffith’s landmark, “Intolerance.” Film editing has rarely been so brilliantly utilized to meld theme and story within separate stories as it is here, and the cinematography by John Toll and Frank Griebe is masterful in how much it contributes to the storytelling beyond merely being images on a screen. This is a great film to hear and watch, although on that end, only the 2346 story (where Tom Hanks and Halle Berry go searching for answers to the world’s questions in a desolate, violent land) suffers, but that’s because the language the characters speak in is practically indecipherable; it has elements of English, but is a more feral version. Kudos to Hanks and Berry, however (both of whom have multiple roles in the film, along with many of the other actors), for being able to let us inside their character’s heads nonetheless, and allow us to care about the outcome of their story.
I haven’t gone into much depth about the actors, yet, because that’s a very slippery slope to discuss. As I said, most of the main actors play multiple roles, some of which are, in fact, multiple variations on a single person. This is never more true than it is with Broadbent and Hugo Weaving. Broadbent plays a similar character in each of the stories we see him name, an older individual who serves as something as a mentor to others; though excellent in the film as a whole, Broadbent is best as the composer I mentioned earlier, as well as a book editor who ends up in a retirement home, and tries to escape with some of his fellow residents. Weaving (a Wachowski veteran from the “Matrix” trilogy and “V for Vendetta”) has an even showier job, and does a magnificent job, essentially playing a malevolent force in each story, forcing the characters to make difficult decisions. In the 2346 story, he has the strongest impact as a devil-like character that tempts Hanks’s character with wickedness. It’s a truly indelible role.
However, the most unforgettable performance is turned in by Doona Bae as Sonmi-451, a clone in the 2144 storyline that discovers the true nature of her world, and is recruited to change it. We see her, primarily, during an interrogation telling her story. She is, in essence, the beating heart of the entire movie, and another character in the Wachowskis’s filmmography that becomes a symbol for change in the world they create. Whether it’s Neo from the “Matrix” movies, V from “V for Vendetta,” or Speed from their underrated “Speed Racer,” that’s ultimately what drives the Wachowskis as filmmakers, and that’s especially true in “Cloud Atlas,” in which they themselves– along with co-director Tykwer –create a grand, cinematic tone poem that, like its most memorable characters, sets out to change our perception of what the world is capable of. It’s not an easy feat, and these three haven’t made an easy movie. Don’t expect to understand it fully the first time around. I certainly don’t think I have.