While it’s no shocker to see a major motion picture be directly inspired and adapted from a massively beloved piece of literature (the medium has been adapting plays, novels, short stories, comic books and all kinds of writing since day one), it is a special occasion when a major studio picture is released based on a novel that the world had seemingly deemed impossible to adapt. A film like Lolita or Tom Tykwer’s Perfume (a novel even the director of the Nabokov adaptation, Stanley Kubrick, deemed as impenetrable) automatically spring to mind. However, very few pieces of writing are as weaving, as expansive and as the 2004 David Mitchell novel Cloud Atlas.
With Perfume director Tom Tykwer back trying to make his life incredibly difficult, he has enlisted (or was enlisted by) fellow co-writers and co-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski, and while three names aboard as both writer and helmer may seem indulgent, the trio have crafted what may very well be this calendar year’s most bloated feature film, but also its most emotionally affecting and its crowning artistic achievement.
To discuss Cloud Atlas is to discuss, in many ways, the truest exploration of the human experience. Weaving six tales almost seamlessly within one another, the film features an absolutely stellar cast taking on multiple roles. Spanning centuries, the film is nearly impossible to describe narratively. Positing that the actions one takes at any given moment will not only effect their current state, but has an impact in the future and is directly related to the past. As the film itself says, summing up its plot perfectly, ‘from womb to tomb, we are bound to one another.’
The cast is one of the best assembled collections of on screen talent in years. Spearheaded by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, the film is the epitome of an ensemble piece. And within this ensemble, the supporting players are the true stars here.
Stealing every scene they have on screen, Ben Wishaw and Jim Broadbent are absolutely awe-inspiring here. The star of what is easily the film’s greatest story arch, Wishaw comes away with what may be his best performance to date as a composer looking to work with his idol, played by Broadbent. Now, Broadbent is featured in nearly every storyline (save for one), so he’s got far more to play with here and is equally as great, but the storyline focusing on Wishaw’s composer and his long distance romance with his lover played in a startlingly silent performance by James D’Arcy is absolutely devastating.
Jim Sturgess is fine here, starring in two narratives (as a sailor saved by a self-freed slave and as a man attempting to free another from bondage in future-set Seoul), but is outshined by his supporting cast, particularly Doona Bae. Bae plays a character named Sonmi-451, who we discover is a piece of artificial intelligence that may or may not be finding her way into the world with more growth than one would have thought. Then there are the true stars here, Hanks and Berry, who share much of their screen time with one another. Hanks hams it up in a modern day set piece as a fiery author who finds himself stricken by a bout of bad judgment (which is led by Broadbent in what may be the film’s funniest series of sequences), but is his best as a scientist in the ‘˜70s opposite Berry’s no-holds-barred journalist. They are also the focus of the last set piece in the timeline, with Berry’s character looking to find her way to the top of a mountain, along with Hanks as her guide.
Convoluted, right? Well, despite how convoluted the prose above this paragraph may sound, the film’s strongest aspect comes in the trio of writers and their ability to keep each of these balls in the air, without confusing as to which is which. It’s simply one of the most startling cinematic achievements of 2012.
Each team (Tykwer and The Wachowskis) is at the top of their game here, particularly the former, who brings the film its greatest sense of truth and heart. With each taking on three of the narratives (Tykwer the stories set in the ‘˜30s, ‘˜70s and today, with the siblings taking on the other three), they are able to hit on each of their respective saving graces. Given the chance to delve back into true science fiction, the Wachowskis thrive in the two stories set in the future. They are given free rein to envision these stories they way they see fit visually, and their action set pieces are utterly superb. Effects wise, the film is a master’s class. Always ones to be visually bombastic, Cloud Atlas never pulls any punches, particularly from the dynamic duo here. That said, their narratives come off as quite cold and distant, particularly the bookends they helm here, proving that while spectacle may make for an engaging watch, they still don’t quite have a grasp on pure human emotion.
But that’s where Tykwer comes in. Always a filmmaker with his fingers on the human pulse (just look at a film like last year’s underrated Drei), his story lines are not the strongest or most inventive sequences artistically (saved for a handful of really solid and emotionally moving set pieces near the end) the film allows each of its characters to breathe through a vital and lively screenplay and some really superb performances. His first sequence, set in the ‘˜30s, is again the film’s strongest sequence, playing on all of the themes and ideas that the trio wants to tap into throughout the film, but distilling it into what is easily this year’s most emotionally resonant piece of cinema. Toss in a really fun sequence set in present day, and a superbly crafted thriller that plays perfectly within its ‘˜70s setting, and you have three short stories that not only intertwine with each other and all five other sequences seen within the film, but become instantly relatable and emotionally profound.
Yes, the film can be seen as bloated. Self-indulgent and histrionic doesn’t begin to describe this picture. Wearing its heart, its brain and just about every other physical extremity right directly on its lavishly colored sleeve, Cloud Atlas is both bewilderingly up front about its ideas on the interconnected nature of life, the human experience throughout time, and how we are all truly connected, it’s also one of the greatest cinematic feats the big screen has seen in ages. A beautifully crafted meditation on time and just how fluid it truly is, the film may be a tad long (it clocks in at three hours) but it’s easily one of the most rewarding and thought provoking looks at human connection throughout time in ages. Toss in some truly fantastic performances and a stunning bit of directing from the three directors involved, and this is a truly brilliant feat of everything involved from directing to editing, writing to cinematography. And everything in between.