A movie that juggles half a dozen narratives and spans thousands of years, Cloud Atlas is a monumental achievement. That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie though.
To try and encapsulate the story in this review would be nearly impossible. I haven’t read David Mitchell’s respected novel but the film is effectively concerned with karmic storytelling, as we see similar incidents played out time and again with different people in different centuries. We’re constantly jumping around these time periods, however the stories themselves are largely chronological. The juxtaposition of Neo Seoul in 2144 with Cambridge in 1936, and the South Pacific Ocean in the late 19th Century with a future primitive society in 2321 is wondrous to behold, and the ease with which the film bounces from one timeframe to another is incredible.
The true star of Cloud Atlas has to be the editor, Alexander Berner. I can’t begin to imagine how much of a mammoth task the film would have been, but he handles it masterfully. His previous work has included Perfume and *ahem* Resident Evil, but trust me when I say this will be the best edited film you’ll see all year. I didn’t occasionally have trouble keeping up with the multiple narratives, but the fact that Cloud Atlas is a comprehensible film and not a disastrous jumble of ideas is nothing short of incredible.
Ingeniously, the film maintains a kind of overall tonal consistency throughout the stories. This means when one of our characters is getting to the bottom of a mystery in their time, a similar scene is occurring in another timeframe. Similarly, when we have a high octane action scene in one setting, we’ll jump into a similar scene with the other characters in another time. This uniformity means that Cloud Atlas flows like a regular film, rather than feeling episodic. The fantastic soundtrack, provided by co-director Tom Tykwer and his regular bandmates, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, assists with the narrative flow also.
The film didn’t have major studio backing, and whilst the budget was in the area of $140 million, it’s clear that they were somewhat restricted. Thus, we’re shown a lot of beautiful digital matte paintings of far flung futures, but there’s little interaction between the actors and the visual effects. Similarly, the actions scenes are fairly contained. That isn’t to say that film looks cheap, but rather that the grandiosity comes from the scope of the story instead of any one scene.
This is also made clear by the distinct lack of A-list Hollywood stars. Tom Hanks apparently championed the film during pre-production when it seemed that the film wouldn’t get made, but apart from that we have a bunch of – uniformly excellent – actors whose names don’t usually appear above the titles on movie posters. This includes Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw and Keith David. There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle with regards to the make-up effects – as Caucasian features are made to look Asian, and Asian or African-American features made to look Caucasian – and the end results are mixed. It works about 50 per cent of the time, but is otherwise distracting.
All things considered, Cloud Atlas is a solid film. It isn’t, however, revelatory. It’s well-crafted, well-performed and it looks great, but the story simply doesn’t feel as powerful as it should. It’s better than the Wachowski’s last endeavour, Speed Racer, but not as good as Tykwer’s best work, The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin). Science fiction fans should definitely check it out, but it’s hard to see that the film will have widespread appeal.Rating: