Loosely weaving many lives together over a period of perhaps 500 years or more, Cloud Atlas explores the interconnectedness and interdependencies of our lives. Across past, present, and future, the film presents varying embodiments of power structures, cultural boundaries, and relationships, seemingly to reflect on what is the same — and to ask what truly varies — across history, and how one life and time might connect to another. If you sit back, demanding that the film grab you and take you, this may all come off as quite esoteric and clinical. But if you actively engage in the stories, each of the six story lines is, in itself, a fun or fascinating, if abbreviated, exploration of life.
A tribesman battles fear as marauders attack. A slave trader comes eye-to-eye, then face-to-face, with a slave. Lovers are separated as one is chased by the authorities. A reporter seeks the truth about possible corruption at a nuclear power plant. A small-time publisher struggles for success. A clone is interviewed about her rebellious acts. Beginning in the 1800s and continuing through 2144 and beyond (100 years “after the Fall”), these six stories are interspersed and overlaid, creating a landscape for us to see and feel connections across great spans of time. Running time: 172 min.
The Wachowskis seem to always have a major metanarrative behind what they put on screen (Speed Racer, The Matrix) and, though the dialog directly speaks the metanarrative, they (mostly) have the skill to avoid forcing it into characters’ mouths, but rather making it appropriate and relevant to their situations. Tom Tykwer excels at imbuing on-screen action with a larger meaning, even though that meaning is left implied and unstated (Run Lola Run, The International). Together, though they split credited directorial duties on the film’s six stories, they meld well both of these angles, creating a cohesive, question-rich film. What forms does our influence on others take? How might that influence carry over generations? Do we know which decisions are influential? Does every decision matter? Does the next moment of my life matter past the fleeting time in which it occurs?
The most unique — and perhaps unsettling — aspect of Cloud Atlas is that the leading actors play multiple roles across the six stories. It’s comes off wonderfully, though, in making the connections across time palpable. Some may read this as some manner of reincarnation theme (as indeed the book's author does), but I find that it works more profoundly, and more universally, when viewed in light of our "immortality" in the effects we have on each other (a notion to which the film gives direct voice). If another picks up on my kindness, living a bit more kindly themselves, I in some sense live on through them — just as I, in my kindness, embody the lives of those from whom I learned it.
The production design and costuming in Cloud are particularly good. In some cases, it is very difficult to recognize an actor though sometimes, perhaps intentionally, it is almost comically easy to. The intercutting of the stories is worthy of particular note. Frequently, the flow between the cuts is uncanny. Whether it goes forward or backward in time, the following cut seems to flow directly from the former, yet again reinforcing the interconnections.
Don't worry about the film's length. Although Cloud Atlas runs just shy of three hours, it was the shortest 3-hour film I've seen; it felt like two. It's fully worth the time — but only if you are willing to actively enter the film's world(s). It's best if you have some time after to think more about the connections or, better yet, to yak about it with friends.
Cloud Atlas is an intense film. Sexuality, and multiple variations of it, are strong in the film, particularly in one quite graphic scene. Violence and blood are on screen periodically, and they can be disturbing. Strong language is occasional.
- Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
- Screenplay: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski, based on novel by David Mitchell
- Leads: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
- Cinematography: Frank Griebe, John Toll
- Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek, Tom Tykwer
- Info on IMDb
- Reviews on Rottentomatoes (63%)
- Reviews on Metacritic (55 of 100)
- Review on Reelviews.net (3 of 4)
- Review on Film School Rejects (grade: A-)
- Review on Christianity Today Movies (1 of 4)
- Review by Paste Magazine (6.7)
- Rent or buy Cloud Atlas DVD on Amazon
- Buy the Cloud Atlas book on Amazon
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