This remarkable adaptation of the supposedly “unfilmable” novel by David Mitchell achieves near-perfection on virtually all levels. It’s likely to divide mainstream audiences, but what at first seems to be an ultraconvoluted series of interconnected story lines – six of them, with each major actor playing multiples roles over multiple centuries – quickly transforms into a film of astonishing depth and insight. “What’s it about?” is going to be the major question going in (even for those who’ve read Mitchell’s audacious, bestselling novel). The answer, in brief, is “the interconnected nature of life.” What the seafaring solicitor Adam Ewing (Sturgess) does or does not do while sailing around the Hawaiian Islands in 1849 with a decidedly non-Hippocratic ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks) will affect, in the end, Tom Hanks’ character Zachry, a post-apocalyptic goatherd bedeviled by a neighboring cannibal tribe led by an unrecognizable Hugh Grant in the year 2346. Every action or inaction incites a kind of butterfly effect that ripples through human history long after any one character has passed from this mortal coil. Really, this is the single most narratively ambitious film I’ve seen in years. Even more amazing is that Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy) pull it off with equal measures of compassion for the human spirit, cliff-hanging storytelling that sucks you in and keeps you rapt for nearly three hours, and a deeply empathetic moral center. Evil is all over the place in Cloud Atlas – in the futuristic megalopolis of Neo Seoul it seems to have the ultimate upper hand – but the film ends on a thrilling, majestic note of hope. More than one audience member I saw the film with left the theatre stunned, or wiping tears from their eyes, or both. Cloud Atlas is that powerful.
Amongst the complicated skein of characters is a positively fantastic, comedic performance by Jim Broadbent as an elderly book publisher intent on making his getaway from an old folks home in present-day London. Then there’s Halle Barry’s Luisa Rey, an investigative reporter in Seventies-era San Francisco who is smitten with a scientist (Hanks again) while trying to uncover nefarious doings by a corporation headed by Hugh Grant. A deeply moving chapter set in 1930s Cambridge has a young, gay composer (Whishaw) struggling to pen The Cloud Atlas Sextet, a lovely little masterpiece that serves as the film’s theme (co-written, in reality, by co-director Tykwer). All of these narrative threads, and more, come together under the clone-gaze of Somni-451 (Bae) in the Blade Runner-esque Neo Seoul.
If that sounds complex beyond measure, it is, but directors, cast, and crew all come together to create a singular whole that makes perfect sense in the end. (Possibly the most astonishing thing about Cloud Atlas is that it is an entirely independently financed project – no Hollywood suits to get in the way of anyone’s creative vision.) It sounds corny to say that Cloud Atlas is a film about the triumph of the human spirit over even the darkest odds across the centuries, but it is exactly that. Watching it, I was spellbound, and, exiting the theatre, I immediately wanted to sit back down and watch it again. And that’s about the highest praise I can give a movie these days. Three hours of my life that I can say with confidence were definitely not wasted.
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