Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas

CLOUD ATLAS: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent (163 min.)

What is Cloud Atlas?  I had no idea walking into the film what to expect, where it would take me, or what it had to say.  After seeing it, I can assure you explaining the plot itself is an exercise for a madman.  I know what Cloud Atlas is, but I wouldn't dare go into details.  Maybe the more appropriate question is, what is the film about?  Well, in the broadest sense, it is a film about everything.  But that is a cheap explanation to give to such a beautiful, mesmerizing film experience.  It shoots for the stars and juggles a myriad of themes and musings on life and existence with creativity, energy, and ambition, and it deserves much more praise than "it's a film about everything."  Let's paint a broad picture of the plot and move from there.

There are six narratives in Cloud Atlas, all thinly threaded together by themes and firmly tied to one another by the actors appearing as different characters in all of them.  There is a segment in the late 1800s, where a man travels aboard a ship and befriends a stowaway slave; there is a lovely narrative in the late 1930s, where a young man lives with a famous composer and composes a beautiful work of his own, The Cloud Atlas Sextet; from there we go to 1973, where a dogged reporter attempts to uncover a sinister energy plot that could cost thousands of lives; the modern-day tale is aloof and spirited in a very comical way, as an old man is tricked into becoming a prisoner of a retirement home.  There are two future segments, the first in 2144 involving the awakening of a synthetic human, her freeing, and subsequent birthing of a revolution; the final segment takes place some 100 years later, when the world has been destroyed and there are but a few outlying colonies here and elsewhere in the galaxy.

But, again, what is the point of telling so many stories?  And with the same actors?  There are any number of reasons for this, namely to show the connection humans have with one another across time and space.  This film deserves and extended essay, but that requires a copy to re-watch and plenty of time.  But there is a central thesis at the heart of Cloud Atlas: no matter how hard we try and control people, free will finds its way.  Each narrative involves a sort of prison, and each character performs different acts of kindness or villainy or cowardice or bravery throughout these periods in time.  Cloud Atlas is about the human spirit bottled up and released, about the way our past affects our future, and the way death merely brings ab out life.  It is all very convoluted as I type this here, but I assure you it makes sense in the picture.  The dots may not entirely connect, but they never really do in life.

What I found to be a marvel is the way directors Tom Twyker (Run Lola, Run), Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) and Lana Wachowski manage to transform David Mitchell's complex novel into a series of narratives which feel vastly different in tone and pacing, but still manage to feel enough alike for everything to work.  Part of this belongs in the hands of the actors.  Tom Hanks and Halle Berry deliver on what must be challenging performances, volleying between five and six characters.  Other multiple roles are played by Jim Broadbent (Oscar worthy in his performances), Hugo Weaving - who has a fascinating character in the most futuristic of the tales - Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant (he never appears to have a redeemable character), Keith David, Jim Sturgess, and Doona Bae, who has the pivotal role of the synthetic revolutionary, Sonmi-451.

Of course the scenery in Cloud Atlas is stunning.  There are wonderful landscapes, fully realized visions of a future in "New Seoul," and the visual mastery is second to none.  And I would imagine here is the frontrunner for the makeup Oscar, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of transformations these recognizable actors undergo from era to era.  Some of the makeup doesn't quite work, especially in later scenes with Bae and a shaky job of Weaving as a female nurse, but those are forgivable because behind it all there is a strict purpose.  The makeup may not make sense, but the reason behind it does.

I knew not what to expect walking into Cloud Atlas.  I halfway expected a mess of a film, and early on I was afraid maybe I was right.  But I gave it a chance, I allowed the flower to bloom beneath the narratives, and I let the game come to me.  Perhaps it is the extended run time of nearly three hours which deters some, which will find a great number of followers throughout the years on home video.  But, I assure you this feels like anything but a three-hour epic.  It moves briskly, with a fever of storytelling and wonderful ambition that may not be matched the rest of the decade.