There is something new going on in 21st-century movies, a strain of films trying to convey the entire experience of life in a single movie. Alejandro Iñárritu has tried this, with lesser (Babel) and greater (Biutiful) success, and so has Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). Cloud Atlas, more successful than most, is the biggest effort yet in this vein — enormous in length and scope, a film whose purpose doesn't even begin to come into focus until two hours in.
Directed by Tom Tykwer and siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski and based on the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is unlike any other movie.
It takes place in six periods of history: the mid-19th century, the 1930s, 1973, 2012, 2144 and the distant future. There are six stories, with different characters, and from the very beginning, the stories are intercut. One scene follows the next in no particular order, and sometimes a scene will last no longer than a minute before a shift in time and location.
There is no apparent logic to these shifts, except, perhaps, an unconscious or cinematic one. A movement or a gesture in one era will connect with a similar movement in another. At times, you might hear someone talking in voice-over, while a scene from another era is shown. Likewise, there is little or no link between the stories, except, as one comes to realize, a moral one. Cloud Atlas attempts to depict endless cycles of recurrence, the moral patterns of human existence.
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If that sounds ambitious and challenging, it is. The filmmakers are betting on audiences being willing to pay close attention, as underlying connections emerge, and willing to go along for a ride, without a clue as to the destination. They are gambling, in fact, on the intelligence and patience of the sci-fi action audience. Let's wish them luck.
They hedge their bets by casting Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant and having them turn up in a variety of roles over the course of time. Implicit in the casting is the notion that these are the same souls in different incarnations, but it doesn't hold up. There is no real point of contact between the characters each actor plays.
A movie with this kind of jagged structure can hold an audience's interest only if each individual story is so compelling that each shift becomes welcome. This is almost, but not completely, the case with Cloud Atlas.
The 19th-century section, directed by the Wachowskis, about a young man (Jim Sturgess) who helps a stowaway slave, is of moderate interest, though it grows over time. The 20th-century stories, directed by Tykwer, are better: Ben Whishaw as a young composer of genius working for a cantankerous has-been composer (Broadbent) in the 1930s; Berry as a crusading reporter risking her life to uncover a scandal in the 1970s; and Broadbent again as a man trying to escape imprisonment in a nursing home in the current time.
The Wachowskis directed the two future segments, with mixed results. The story of a young replicant, or clone (Doona Bae), in Korea who ends up leading a revolution in 2144 is tense and moving, one of the film's highlights. But the section set in the distant future, in which Berry and Hanks wear animal skins and talk in a ridiculous future language, is almost unwatchable. It's this story, always a drag to come back to, that keeps Cloud Atlas this side of greatness.
Still, despite some weaknesses, a sense gradually emerges in this film about the dance of good and evil over time. It's a grown-up person's vision: When you're young, it's possible to believe that evil can be vanquished. As you get older, you realize evil never stops changing shapes and faces. In Cloud Atlas, the monster can be beaten, but always comes back, always can be beaten. There can never be a happy ending, but there can be a mature consolation that, in itself, has grandeur and is the opposite of despair.