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“Cloud Atlas” is a Bold and Ambitious Piece of Filmmaking

November 5, 2012

By John C.

Many thought that David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas would be unfilmable, but directors Andy and Lana Wachowski along with Tom Tykwer have proven them wrong with this epic adaptation that opened in theatres on October 26th and will be talked about for a long time.

With a top notch cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess among others, the film spans several hundred years as we watch the souls of the characters morph from heroes to villains and how one mistake or act of kindness ripples through generations.  I was lucky enough to see Cloud Atlas back in September on the final weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It would be hard to describe where Cloud Atlas starts, because the earliest events are not where the movie actually begins.  The film opens in an uncharted distant future as the weathered Zachry (Tom Hanks) sits by a campfire, but the story starts back in 1849 on a ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) lies sick on a bed, writing a diary.  The diary is found by English musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) in 1936, as he sends letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and is transcribing the work of an aging composer (Jim Broadbent).  The love letters are read by Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a San Francisco journalist in 1973 who is doing research for a novel, that will end up in the hands of a British publisher (Jim Broadbent) in present day.

The film also takes us to a cold and calculated futuristic version of Korea, where rebel clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is in the early stages of an uprising that will be felt for generations to come.  As the stories unfold, sometimes all at the same time throughout several haunting montages that use breathtaking editing to help bring everything together, themes and patterns start to emerge.  An actor who plays a villain in one scene might be playing a hero in the next, as the audience fills in the blanks of which moments drastically shaped what the soul of the character would ultimately become.  At first we have to concentrate to see the connections between the stories, allowing the film to play almost like a mystery as it all brilliantly comes together and builds up to something deep and profoundly thought out.

The great cast of actors convincingly play multiple roles and the closing credits are sure to make you gasp as we realize just who played the many different characters with the help of stunning makeup.  Although some people have complained about the use of makeup and facial prosthetics to allow white actors like Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving to play Asian characters, the intent of the film was not to be racist but to show the connections that we all share, regardless of race or gender.  By having the same actors play numerous different characters, the sometimes abstract themes of Cloud Atlas begin to make a little more sense.  Although I have only mentioned one of his roles, Tom Hanks appears in all six stories, morphing from villain into hero and back again.  The characters of Hugo Weaving represent a true downward spiral, and he plays a physical representation of evil in the future world.

I admire the fact that Cloud Atlas even got made and have to applaud Warner Bros. for taking a chance on the distribution.  But with an opening weekend total of $9.6 million and a second weekend take of just over five million, it begs the question of why more audiences aren’t seeing the film.  Perhaps some fear a polarizing experience that will be hard to follow and test their attention spans, but my suggestion is to go to the theatre with an open mind and a group of people who want to talk about it afterwards.  Although the ideas behind Cloud Atlas are often complex, the way that the film so effortlessly blends styles and genres makes the 164 minute running time move along at a surprisingly quick pace.

There are so many things going on in Cloud Atlas, that it would be impossible for me to sum them up in this article or to discuss all of the ideas that are present throughout the film.  There are many themes behind the multiple stories, including racism and the lack of acceptance for different minority groups throughout history, and one of the most resonant of them is the often asked question of why we keep making the same mistakes.  I think the point of the film is to show us the profound affect that simple acts of kindness can have across future generations.  A bold and ambitious piece of filmmaking, Cloud Atlas demands more than one viewing, asking the audience to pay attention but offering a hugely satisfying pay off in return.

But regardless of what you think about Cloud Atlas, I have to admit that I’ve never seen another movie quite like it.  The film mixes deeply felt human stories that are brought together by spiritual ideas, along with futuristic visions and action sequences that are bolstered by shocking bursts of graphic violence.  It would be easy to describe it as a stylistic mix of themes and genres, but Cloud Atlas is also a haunting film about the natural order of the world, and how a single act of kindness can ripple across countries and generations to propel us all forward into a better future.  No matter what, we are all connected.

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