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Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

By Toussaint Egan

Cloud Atlas is the latest film from Directors Tom Twkyer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski Siblings (The Matrix Trilogy). Co-directed between the three directors, the film’s premise is centered around the themes of reincarnation and the human experience. It accomplishes this through its structure as an anthology of six distinct but thematically interwoven narratives which take place between the mid-1800’s all the way until just after the fall of human civilization. The meaning of Cloud Atlas as a whole can only be inferred peripherally through the gradual individual understanding  of these six interdependent stories.

The cast is an multi-national ensemble of over a dozen actors, most prominently of which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, and Doona Bae, each of whom play multiple different roles and genders throughout the film’s six stories.

All in all, It’s a movie about slaves who become saviors, saints who become sinners, and the meek and downtrodden who become heroes and messiahs.

Phew; Now that that extremely hit-and-run explanation is out of the way, let’s move on.

If there ever was a film that should have been released with on-screen subtitles and a program pamphlet provided in theaters, it’s Cloud Atlas. No less than three dialects, all of which spoken in a variety of thick heavy accents, are used in Cloud Atlas. Right from the beginning of the film, a murmuring form of future-speak reminiscent of Clockwork Orange’s Nadsat is spoken by none other than Tom Hanks, with little to no context or elaboration whatsoever.

This critical misstep in the delivery of the most basic opening dialogue is repeated numerous times throughout the course of the movie, rendering what would have otherwise been momentous moments of plot exposition into something that’s otherwise confusing and just falls flat. However, the story is able to recover from these initial fumbles and proceed to elaborate on its more stranger conventions.

It is to the credit of a strong principal cast that the stories in Cloud Atlas shine and flourish as well as they do. It should be no surprise to any movie goer that Tom Hanks dominates the majority of the screen-time in this film, but I’m personally impressed by the quality performances of actors like Jim Sturgess, and especially Ben Whishaw’s role as Robert Frobisher, a young disgraced bisexual English musician with a powerful way with words. Jim Broadbent charms in his bumbling bookish performance as the  literary agent Timothy Cavendish, and relative newcomer Doona Bae is radiant as the terse and sharply perceptive Somni-451. Outside of Whishaw, her role as Somni might be the standout performance of the entire film.

However, It never stops being disappointing  that no matter what circumstance over the course of six stories Hugo Weaving is forever typecast as some nameless aggressor or main antagonist. Whether it’s his creepy Rumpelstiltskin-esque portrayal of  “Old George” in the future story or as the cruel Nurse Noakes in Cavendish’s timeline, it never stops feeling like such a waste of such an otherwise talented actor.

Yes, Hugo Weaving plays a woman. No, it never stops being jarring.

“What is a critic if not a person who reads too quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely?”

This quote, spoken by Timothy Cavendish early on around the beginning of Cloud Atlas comes off as a deliberate, preemptive attempt by the directors to deflect any would-be criticism towards the film’s structure or content. And be completely fair, perhaps they have a right to be cautiously defensive, as Cloud Atlas is by no means a typical film and as such is open to all kinds of critical interpretations.

It is without a doubt one of the most sprawling, elaborate independent films to come out this year; and as such writing this review and explaining this movie becomes almost as complicated as the film itself.

Months ago when I first saw the premiere trailer, I had a running joke between a couple of close friends of mine that Cloud Atlas would either turn out to be this year’s Fifth element or just end up being The Tree of Life with more explosions. After having watched the film, I can confidently say that the answer lies somewhere between the two.

Cloud Atlas is a film that attempts to be so many things, accomplishing some very well and others not at all. At times both deeply moving and jarringly comical, the film all the while knows how to pay respect to the conventions of narrative pacing so as not to fall completely into incomprehensibility. It is perhaps only through the inclusion of several consistent visual motifs, such as a journal written by one of the main characters or a birthmark linking one main character to the next, that helps to translate the abstraction of the original material into a comprehensible film.

It’s a film that’s almost impossible to easily classify or describe, and because of this Cloud Atlas is extremely difficult to recommend to any confidence. With a running time cranking in at just short of three hours, Cloud Atlas is an true exercise of one’s own patience and attention span. It’s an audacious if flawed testament to the power of cinema in adapting pre-exisitng material. A film with a wealth of visual depth that demands to be seen in IMAX.

Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious, complicated, visually and conceptually beautiful films I’ve seen this entire year. However, for all of its audacious grandeur, sweeping beautiful vista shots, and hefty philosophical source material, Cloud Atlas remains an admirable achievement that is otherwise marred by many small flaws that grow throughout the film and can make it a somewhat challenge to watch. But as Sturgess’ character Adam Ewing would say, “What is an ocean, if not a multitude of single drops?”

If you’re a movie-goer with an open mind for challenging sorts of  film and a spare three hours to burn, I highly recommend it. If not, no harm no foul. Like many of its conceptual predecessors, Cloud Atlas is not a film for everyone. But if you give it some time, respect, and attention, you just might be surprised with how much you’ll enjoy it.