Head in the clouds

tom hanks and halle berry in cloud atlas

It really was all about that 6-minute trailer, wasn’t it? That was a ballsy move on the part of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, considering people have a hard time staying focused past the 5-minute mark these days. Hell, I’m guilty of that myself; I groan when I check a YouTube video’s running time and it’s over 7 minutes. This, however, this grabbed me and didn’t let go. The stark images, the excellent sync of the music, and just the plain bravery of the concept – it all conspired to make Cloud Atlas my number one movie to watch this autumn.

I probably don’t need to rehash the story, as the trailer does an excellent job of that. In fact, the trailer can even serve as one of those “see the movie in 10 minutes” things; it perfectly encapsulates and distills the film’s concept and feel almost in its entirety (although, considering this is a near 3-hour movie, perhaps that doesn’t bode well for the concept itself).

As I suspected while watching the trailer, the film doesn’t match that initial feeling of pure awe. Part of that is because of the sheer bulk of information it has to wade through; three hours consisting of six stories that span centuries as well as genres, with the narrative weaving through them at a pace that won’t faze longtime Tykwer and Wachowski fans, but might bewilder others. Another part is that not all six stories are equally interesting, or work equally well, and the constant back-and-forth between them doesn’t allow the characters to breathe or even become something more than archetypes in service to the central idea. Some of the actors make up for this by virtue of their own presence (Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Ben Wishaw are particular highlights), but no sooner have they managed to draw the outline of an interesting character, than they have to drop everything and leg it to the next scene, hastily pulling on the next piece of outrageous prosthetic.

The recycling of the same actors in different roles throughout all six stories is an interesting idea that serves the overall concept of the film; that we are all connected, and that love can survive through time and bring previously lost souls together. I also saw it as a bold statement for equality – black actors perform white character roles, Western actors portray Asian characters and vice versa, and there’s even a bit of gender-swapping going on that is impossible to not be traced back to Cloud Atlas‘ own co-director, Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry. Much has been said about this already, but I feel it can’t be ignored as a particularly powerful addition to the film’s message that, in the end, we are all people, trying to live our allotted lifespan as best we can. The only problem with this is that trying to figure out which actor will appear next and in what role kind of distracts from the narrative, and some of the makeup jobs can be a little jarring.

Surprisingly for such a meandering film, the narrative pace serves it well. The scenes swap between centuries with the ease and coherence that other films swap between hours, and the constant change of focus is so well timed, it helps keep the stories moving where elsewhere they might have ground to a halt, and even manages to link them thematically so that each scene flows brilliantly into the next, despite the aeons separating them.

The scope and ambition here are clearly epic, and the sharp direction and controlled pacing help overshadow the fact that the writing can be downright clunky in places, with certain near cringe-worthy lines. That said, the script’s naïveté can be catching; part of you wants to be swept away by it, even as another part scoffs at the idea.

So, while Cloud Atlas is certainly flawed, it remains a refreshingly honest and ambitious project, and definitely the most interesting thing the Wachowskis have done since the Matrix trilogy. It may be far from perfect, and it may not be the majestic cinematic experience that 6-minute trailer promised, but I’m glad it exists.

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