If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard a lot about Cloud Atlas. The film adaptation of David Mitchell’s book by the same name is critically-acclaimed in its own rite, winning several major literary awards. The film premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival was met with a ten minute standing ovation, proving that directors Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski had managed to adapt a novel that was seemingly untranslatable into film.
As someone unfamiliar with the book, I’ll admit I felt overwhelmed for the first hour or so. Not because the story itself is confusing, rather extremely dense. We follow the reincarnations of the souls of six major characters through time. Each thread has its own distinct personality and interconnects with the lives of the others. The connections aren’t always immediately obvious; at first it feels a bit like a game of “Where’s Waldo”, trying to spot the characters that overlap from one life to another. Soon, we pick up on the theme which starts out as rather subtle, but is quite explicit later on:
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Reincarnation. Karma. Ascension. I was reminded of the Buddhism class I took in college. And while there is consistency in theme, the vehicles used to convey those themes (the soul-paths of the main characters), are vastly varied. We begin with a young lawyer making a voyage across the pacific in 1849, keeping a journal of his travels (adventure). This story line is interrupted by letters from a penniless composer (and amanuensis to a well-known Belgian composer) to his friend and lover (love story/drama). Again the story is interrupted and we are brought to a publisher who has gotten mixed up with the wrong clientele and, when he turns to his brother for refuge and a pay-off for some related gangsters, he is thrown into a nursing home from which he cannot escape (farce). Then, we’re thrown into a thriller-type story of Luisa Rey, who is unraveling the plan to build a dangerous nuclear power plant, after stumbling into the murder of a whistle-blowing nuclear physicist. Some time after that we’re brought to futuristic Korea, where a fabricant (or clone) is being interviewed before her execution as punishment for rebelling against the society she was created to serve. Finally, we’re interrupted by the story of a tribesman in post-Apocalyptic Hawaii, being visited by Meronym, one of the last members of technically-advanced civilization since “The Fall”.
By the end of the film, we discover that each of these stories, from thriller, to romance, to adventure, to farce, is seamlessly linked to the other. They are so expertly interweaved that you spend the majority of the movie trying to figure everything out before finally having that “a-ha” moment, at which point you want to start over and watch the whole thing again. I heard someone describe it as a difficult crossword puzzle: challenging, but worth it in the end. It’s a mental exercise, and requires constant attention, but pays back in dividends.
The film owes a lot to the brilliance of David Mitchell, the author who created such a unique and interesting story, and the directors for adapting the seemingly unadaptable. But to stop there overlooks the other critical pieces of the puzzle which trip the wire from great into outstanding.
The acting: phenomenal. There aren’t many plots (especially recently) that demand so much versatility of its actors and actresses. Each actor is playing many (sometimes five or six) reincarnations of the same soul. The sheer magnitude of the task of building out each of these characters and allowing the overarching soul to remain present and develop from life to life is staggering. While many other epics of this scale depend on many characters with little depth, Cloud Atlas really allows us to hone in on these six, but never giving any individual enough screen time to grow stale before switching to the next. Rather, we see the choices and actions of each ripple into the lives of the others, allowing for some profound moments of self-reflection. Where will my actions and choices bring me?
As with any other epic, the visuals are impressive, but I think like most American movie gluttons, I’ve come to expect them in a movie approaching a $100M budget. What was interesting was how visually diverse the storylines are. Much like the variation in tone and genre from one storyline to the other, the range in style (and even color palette) in which each was shot to correspond appropriately. Two points for consistency.
I feel like I could talk about this movie for days, but I’ll end with my recommendation that you go check it out for yourself. Like many great movies, I truly believe that it provides an opportunity for a highly personal experience. It’s one of those that really sticks with you and keeps the wheels turning long after you’ve left the theater, pondering all sorts of uncertainties and your role in the ripples of the universe. In my opinion, that’s the hallmark of a truly great film—when the visuals, the plot, and the themes stay alive and haunt you for the days and weeks to follow. Bravo to the actors, the author, and directors/screenwriters who were able to pull this off and create what I’m sure will prove to be a gem in 2012 films.
"Ascending into the "Cloud Atlas"" opens October 26, 2012 and is rated R. Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi. Directed by Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, Tom Tykwer. Written by Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski. Starring Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, James DArcy, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks.