A few nights ago Cloud Atlas blew my mind into smithereens as multitudinous as the stars. I’m still trying to collect my thoughts.
All I know is that, yes it may be a bit messy at times, but it’s a beautiful, glorious mess that you have to lose yourself in. I had this immense, exultant rush after seeing it, like I was on drugs. It’s a bold, ballsy drug by Tom and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, spanning six time periods from 1849 through to Neo Seoul, 2144 and further to 106 winters after “The Fall”. The Wachowski’s took care of the future periods while Tykwer directed the classical parts.
The source material, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, deserves a lot of credit as the ideas of interconnectedness and fate are all his. That’s one half of the puzzle. But committing it to the screen, the attempt alone and then the feat of executing it so well, deserves equal praise if not more. Because the different stories (up to a point) don’t feel all that original, but the sheer scope of it and how it all fits together, along with the actors’ performances, superb make-up and beautiful awe-inspiring visuals, really bring it home. It takes this monumental idea about life, everything, the eternal narrative of humankind, and gives it a physical form. That’s the big achievement, being able to present this idea the way they’ve done.
Watching Cloud Atlas recalled another divisive pop culture phenomenon of the previous decade. Cloud Atlas feels like the movie the creators of Lost would’ve made in their prime. And much like Lost, some of the storylines/flashbacks don’t completely hold up, but the overall result (at least for a lot of seasons where Lost is concerned) is still incredibly satisfying.
Certainly everything does not hold up. For example, I could’ve done without seeing Hugo Weaving as a burly nurse or Halle Berry running around San Francisco as a jive journalist on the trace of something big. And Tom Hanks’ cockney gangster will go down as one of the most ridiculous career choices of his or any of his peers’ career. But then that error is brief, thankfully, and Hanks more than makes up for it in two other powerful performances as the deceitful, unsavoury Doctor Goose and tribesman of the future, Zachry. Each actor plays on average about five or six characters, after all, so they can afford the odd slip-up.
Hanks’ gangster Dermot Hoggins can also be forgiven, because his hot-headedness triggers one of the more unusual plot strands for a film where almost nothing seems out of place. Jim Broadbent is Timothy Cavendish, the publisher of Hoggins’ autobiography. And once the book turns out to be a hit, Hoggins sends his cronies to collect more money that he thinks he’s now owed. This sends Cavendish fleeing into the arms of his brother who, after having had enough of bailing him out, tricks him into booking into an old age home. Here begins a humorous jailbreak plot involving Cavendish and a few other geriatric “inmates” that is completely incongruous in its comedy and levity, but which just works remarkably well. Broadbent is excellent, his face wrung constantly into a crazed look of confusion and dismay. The actor then also balances out this foolish role by turning out a solid performance as the cruel composer Vyvyan Ayrs to boot.
Other stand-outs are Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae and James D’Arcy, who put in great performances all over but especially in the Neo Seoul storyline, another one of the best with some terrific action packed in.
So, it moves quickly and it can be confusing – they even invented a new dialect for the future which is at times quite hard to follow but which should also be saluted – but what ties it all together is the unifying theme of freedom. The movie depicts how our striving for liberty never lessens as new obstacles appear and old ones re-emerge. And simultaneously the film (and book, I suppose) frees up its characters in space and time by letting all the stories flow into each other. Cuts between scenes based in different time-periods are made frequently and flippantly to blur their distinctions. This feels like several movies, but the directors force us to view it as one which just happens to be told over a vast expanse of time. On a whole new cinematic level, space and time are illusions that limit storytelling no more. It might not be your bag of chips, but if you go in for that kind of thing, it’ll free your mind for a little while…