The last movie that Andy and Lana Wachowski have directed was Speed Racer; before that, The Matrix Revolutions. I have not seen Speed Racer and cannot speak for it, but can remark that Cloud Atlas is surely superior to either of the two Matrix sequels. I had a feeling that, once the Wachowskis returned to directing/writing simultaneously, it would primarily result in success (even if they shared the duties with Tom Tykwer, director/writer of Run Lola Run).
To clear up what should be obvious from the start: Cloud Atlas is remarkably overblown. Hell, even one of the official trailers for it is nearly 6 minutes long! Simple and to-the-point, this film is not. However, nor is Cloud Atlas some intricate framework of lofty philosophy and allegory (if you discount the obvious allegory it builds within itself; a movie with 6 concurrent plots running is bound to be on some level). The Wachowskis used Plato’s allegory of the cave as a foundation for the concept of The Matrix, and in a similar way here, the nature of truth is displayed in a manner that would be explored in any 12th grade AP English class; it is not inane, but nor is it anything groundbreaking. Instead, we have a movie that is truly more interested in moral regards, spectacle, and character-acting.
The 7 members of the cast who get the most screen time each play at least 5 characters. Refer to IMDB so I don’t have to use up half my review space listing all of them. The central focus of the story is the idea that an individual’s pattern of actions has both immediate and lasting effects that shape the present world, influence future society, and sculpt that individual’s ‘future self.’ Since each of the running plotlines occur during various time periods in the same chronology, each actor plays their respective characters in the manner of a vessel; inhabiting the character for that space in time to serve some tiny or significant purpose, until they perhaps appear again some years down the road. Oh yeah, and all of these plotlines unfold across the screen concurrently.
For the most part, each actor plays similar characters throughout: Jim Sturgess is perpetually the good guy, and Hugo Weaving is perpetually the bad guy (and it seems he must be in every Wachowski movie he appears). Halle Berry and Doona Bae are, primarily, seekers of truth and justice, risking reputation or death in the process. Jim Broadbent is a kind of underdog type, and Ben Whishaw an artist and musician who remains significant ever so briefly- which I will, of course, not reveal why.
Tom Hanks, who has by far the largest head on the American theatrical poster, is, for all intents and purposes, the main character of the story. This is probably because his charm as an actor is inexplicable. He also has the most interesting arc between his series of characters, and is thematically the most compelling. 4 of these 6 characters fluctuate morally throughout each incarnation- greed, rage, passion, pride, cowardice, and perseverance round out plenty of character development. And in my favorite moments of the film, a deliciously evil Hugo Weaving torments Tom Hanks’ Zachry as Old Georgie, a kind of Satanic presence, during the “After the Fall” segment, which is, chronologically, the final of the 6 subplots. Old Georgie seethes at Zachry with malice and temptation, an apparition that preys upon the primal urge and weakness that we observe within several of the characters that Hanks plays. It ties the arc of his characters together nicely, and gives us a sense that his struggle with moral choice is grueling and real.
My favorite sub-plot as a whole is what I refer to as “the dueling composers.” Both Broadbent and Whishaw give the best performances here as a pair, and the romantic undertones induced by the period-piece style costumes, cinematography, wonderful piano arrangements, and Robert’s poetic letters to his dear Rufus Sixsmith would surely make this the most solid plotline to be expanded to a feature-length film. Intriguing, considering two separate crews filmed Cloud Atlas, and this particular plotline was directed solely by Tom Tykwer.
It is in Jim Broadbent’s characters I am least interested in. With his Captain Molyneux, he makes a single, brief decision as a character. He plays the composer Vyvyan Ayrs convincingly, and in retrospect, did play his characters perhaps better than any other member of the cast. Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish and ensuing antics may be necessary to lighten the mood of the dense thematic material coating Cloud Atlas, but it is nonetheless a familiar cop-out: the subplot he inhabits is in service to the film’s ‘funny side’ and singularly useless on its own. Why should we root for him to escape the senior center when he has dug his own hole repeatedly?
Again, this is a film centered on spectacle and characters. For the most part, it succeeds in both of these aspects. The special effects are outstanding, and who would expect less from the Wachowskis? Only a couple of the more ambitious shots in the film look anything less than beautiful, or believable. The scenes in New Seoul evoke a kind of Blade Runner mood (seems to be popular these days: Total Recall, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, etc), even if barely explored on the street level. The characters are all kinds of diverse, and played by the actors with enough urgency and command that your immersion is rarely broken- quite a feat, that one. Even if sometimes, Halle Berry is not quite emphatic enough, or Bae not emotive enough, you forgive them for the fact that there is just so much good acting packed into this damn movie. Like many modern movies of its kind, the ultra-busy plot does not leave much room to breathe, or allow you the space to inhabit it (I’m looking at you, The Dark Knight Rises), which is a shame, especially considering the potential for atmosphere with the bevy of locales on display. Yet, in the end, Cloud Atlas’ inconsistency in tone and pacing was really not too disappointing to me, considering that is practically inevitable with this kind of scope.
Cloud Atlas doesn’t quite work as a tapestry, because it does not unfold in a neat fashion. The characters and events approach so many possibly-related intersections of correlation, contrasting them is like attempting to visually fathom a 6 dimensional hypercube (go ahead, google that). The sooner one stops seeking out every possible connection between the layers of experience in the film, the more there will be to enjoy as spectacle. Despite its rougher edges, this makes Cloud Atlas effective from two different lenses.