Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

IMDB, Cloud Atlas“Cloud Atlas” on IMDB

Drama/Sci-fi, 172 Minutes, 2012

I had been attracted to this by the trailers but lost track of it until I noticed it available on Amazon Instant Video.  I couldn’t honestly remember what about it attracted me.  I knew that Tom Hanks [IMDB] seems to pick scripts well and that I’d never been completely disappointed by the Wachowski’s.  We ended up watching it, my lovely bride and I, without bothering to get any more information on it.

We loved it.  Both of us.  We didn’t understand shit.  Neither of us.

The movie (as you may know but we didn’t) involves six loosely threaded stories across many hundreds of years.  Three of the stories take place in the past: the height of the slave trade in 1849, a melodrama centering on the composition of a new musical piece in 1936 and a hard-boiled industrial mystery in 1973.  The modern day story centers on a weak-kneed publisher and is the comic relief of the group.  The final two stories, one set in the lush technological playground of 2144 and the other set some time after an apocalyptic event that’s driven much of humanity back to a primitive state.

The stories themselves tackle powerful themes such as slavery, rebellion, obsession and religion.  They are all interesting in their own right and range wildly across genres.  This does keep you on your toes as we move from the quiet drama of 1936 into the explosive (and VERY loud) science-fiction of 2144.  My only real issue was that the highly altered English of the post-apocalyptic piece was so unintelligible that it often required multiple viewings to understand.

The same stable of actors appear in multiple roles across the stories.  Tremendously complex make-up effects, even extending to race and gender, required radical investments from the actors.  While watching we had first assumed that the actors represented descendent bloodlines but the closeness of the modern era stories mean that many of these characters lives would overlap.  Instead it seems to be some kind of spiritual or metaphorical connection.  When viewed in isolation the collected roles of each actor do seem to have a marked, if subtle, progression over time.  Although everybody is uniformly excellent Tom Hanks, who’s characters grow the most across the centuries, and Hugo Weaving [IMDB], who remains rotten to the core throughout, are the standouts.

It’s arguable that the movie fails in its primary goal of creating a meaningful flow between the stories.  The connections are there but subtle and often easily missed.  Most of them are ultimately mysterious.  We know, for example, that the music from 1936 survives to 2144 but not how (or indeed if) it had any impact on events.  I deeply appreciate not being spoon-fed complexities but this movie doesn’t give you any silverware at all.  In fact it ties your hands behind your back.  It serves up a delicious steak but you’re going to burn your nose trying to eat it.

It’s as if somebody challenged the filmmakers to make a meandering, confusing movie that was also great and they rose to the challenge.  It’s a cliché but appropriate here: you’d probably get much more out of this if you had already read the book.  I hadn’t and felt I missed some of the subtleties.  Honestly the interconnectedness of the stories is icing on the cake.  Even taken soley as a simple anthology this is a still a great movie.  Finding the true depth of it will likely mean at least several more viewings.

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  1. It’s not one of those movies that you watch and it makes you sob all-over-the-place, it’s more of the kind of film that has you interested right off the start, keeps that interest, and delivers pretty well. Not perfect, but still a good way to spend 3 hours watching. Nice review.

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