With the people behind The Matrix trilogy sitting in two of the three directors chairs, and a story that spans time from the past to the present to the future, you’d think the movie Cloud Atlas would be an epic and intelligent sci-fi film. But as they say, two out of three ain’t bad.
Instead, Cloud Atlas is more than just a sci-fi film. While this epic and intelligent films does have some elements of sci-fi in much of it, it’s also a drama, a morality tale, a philosophical dissertation, and more.
Based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas consists of six inter-connected stories that, in the book, were told in chronological order and then reverse chronological order, starting in the 1800s before moving thought the 1970s, a cyberpunky future, and on to the aftermath of a collapsed society where everyone talks like the kids from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But in the film, the scenes from different periods are all mixed together like the editor hit “blend” on Avid by accident.
Still, all six share numerous elements — some deep, some superficial — as if to make a larger point about destiny and history repeating itself. It’s a point driven home by the fact that stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Hugh Grant, and Doona Bae all play multiple roles. But not in a Eddie Murphy/Klumps kind of way; instead, they play different people in the different time periods (though they do wear make-up to distinguish themselves).
But while it would’ve been easy for Mitchell to tell a single story that runs from one time to the next, something of grand design, he instead chose to tell six stories that are only tangentially and thematically connected. Sure, it’s implied that some things that happen in one time period have inspired or led to the events of the next, and having the same actors play multiple roles in the different time frames imply a connection as well, but it’s neither that direct nor even spelled out.
Credit for translating such a complicated and subtle story to the screen belongs to Andy and Lana Wachowski (who wrote and directed The Matrix movies) and Tom Tykwer (who wrote and directed Run Lola Run), who cowrote this film’s complex screenplay together but split up to direct the scenes from different time periods (not surprisingly, the Wachowskis took the cyberpunk scenes).
Though credit also has to go to the talented cast, all of whom have the skill to play such disparate but still somewhat similar roles. Granted, Hanks is always good, as are Berry, Sarandon, and Broadbent, but Grant is more impressive here than he has been in a while, while Doona Bee — who was previously in The Host and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance — has such an expressive face and soft approach that she more than holds her own alongside such vets.
That said, while Cloud Atlas doesn’t collapse under the weight of its lofty ambitions (which it very easily could’ve done), it’s not without its flaws. The most glaring of which is the make-up, which is sometimes quite excellent, but is also, at times, distractingly bad. Especially since the actors don’t just play people in different times, but of different genders and even ethnicities and races as well.
There’s also a character in the post-collapsed-society story whose presence is never explain nor makes any sense, and thus threatens to undermine the whole storyline by being so inexplicably cartoonish.
The futuristic parts also serve as a reminder of how the Wachowski’s are really at their best when working in sci-fi. Granted, that’s like saying Woody Allen should only make funny movies like Annie Hall and Love & Death, but if the shoe fits that well….
There’s also the question of whether Cloud Atlas is, ultimately, any good. It’s an immensely interesting movie, and even at nearly three hours long, it’s never boring; it moves along at a nice clip. But while it’s the kind of movie you might have to see a couple times to fully comprehend, it’s also, ironically, not the kind of movie you’d want to watch over and over. In fact, if you’re in it for the story, you might be better off just reading the book (maybe even before seeing the film, if you can swing it). Still, as a movie, this epic, intelligent, and occasionally sci-fi-flavored drama is definitely worth seeing, especially on the big screen. Just don’t expect to get it all at once.