Traditionally, independent filmmakers are restricted to films small in scope because of the limitations of a minimal budget. Indie projects with financing upwards of a few million dollars are considered highly abnormal.
Therefore when three directors — Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer — combine talents and collect more than $100 million, the film industry takes notice. Adapted from the renowned British novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas combines elements of almost every genre imaginable, including romance, science fiction, farce comedy and apocalyptic disaster. The film’s synopsis is not easily described — the novel and film can best be visualized as a looped tapestry of six narratives, all of which span the past, present and distant future literally and thematically.
Though the film begins in 1849 with the story of a lawyer at sea and ends in a post-apocalyptic future in 2346, the timeline of Cloud Atlas is achronological. The Wachowskis and Tykwer shuffle the stories into a structure that fluctuates both time and place while revealing connections between superficially disparate stories.
Once described as “un-filmable” by its author, the stories of Cloud Atlas are not only ambitious in structure, but in metaphorical purpose as well. The film deals with grand ideologies, including the desire for freedom, the strength of love and the destruction of oppression. Since the combined storyline encompasses such a large portion of time — nearly 500 years — the directing trio had to develop a mechanism for compressing the collective plot while still retaining the links between stories.
Cleverly, Tykwer and the Wachowskis use actors in multiple roles throughout the six stories to help connect the film’s thematic associations.
The three filmmakers have assembled an interesting cast of actors, mixing high-profile stars like Halle Berry and Tom Hanks with talented character actors like Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent. So when dolling up these performers for filming, the makeup team faced a paradoxical task: maintaining the actors’ unique character personae while creating striking differences in appearance so parallels could be drawn between roles.
For the recognizable actors, this method successfully seams together the six anecdotes. The relatively unknown actors are harder to identify in multiple roles, however, thereby lessening the impact of those connections.
Still, Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most beautiful film released in quite a long time. Usually, films choose a single visual style and never deviate too far from that form, but Cloud Atlas excellently incorporates multiple types of imagery. The film blends an intricately designed past with a cleverly constructed future: From the industrialized geometric architecture of futuristic Neo-Seoul to the beautiful vintage feel of Belgium during the 1930s, the intense detail of each world seems effective but effortless. And since each frame contains such a great amount of information, the viewer is never bored while watching the film.
Considering the film’s nearly three-hour run time, one might expect the audience to experience fatigue or exhaustion, but Cloud Atlas moves with such fluidity that what in actuality is fairly long feels appropriately concise. This smooth pacing is the result of three factors: the excellent visuals, strong acting and superb editing. The acting across the board is quite successful. Most actors maintain a strong onscreen presence throughout their stories while also adding a special depth to each role. This balance of consistency and versatility creates a single narrative arc, but also individual branches, each with their own payoffs.
Cloud Atlas’ method of playing time ends up being its strongest attribute. Tykwer and the Wachowskis allow each story an appropriate duration before cutting and jumping to another setting entirely. The directors capture the audience’s attention in one story and immediately cut to another, thereby forcing viewers to intelligently consider the stories through a juxtaposition of scenes. The entire film revolves around this principle and for the majority of the six narratives it works very well.
So if the visuals are magnificent, the acting strong and the editing seamless, why does the film fail to meet the lofty expectations placed upon it?
Mainly, Cloud Atlas falters because of the nature of the connection between the six tales. Though the transitions are seamless and easy to understand, the connection between the stories feels highly superficial, almost too obvious for the viewer’s sake. Rather than alluding to these links by metaphorical means, the directors employ a much more direct representation. This choice greatly weakens the emotional impact of the film’s multiple climaxes.
The post-apocalyptic story in the film also features a stylized, degenerative form of English quite difficult to understand. Consequently, with the dialogue’s apparent lack of purpose, the scenes inhabiting this world are puzzling and ineffective. It seems that this future fable is the culmination of every prior story and their respective themes. And because this particular story is challenging to comprehend, the film fails to bring the themes of the individual stories to one, cohesive climax.
Despite its deep flaws, however, Cloud Atlas is a marvel of cinematic experience. Though it might not be the groundbreaking, exceptional film many had hoped for, Tykwer and the Wachowskis succeed with their ambitious project. The sensation of watching this epic might not be perfect, but it forces its audience to question the complexities of their own lives.