To say Cloud Atlas is an ambitious title would be an understatement. Translating a novel into a film is difficult enough, and Cloud Atlas features six intertwining stories across various time periods. As the official description puts it, the film is “an epic story of humankind in which the actions and consequences of our lives impact one another throughout the past, present, and future.” If there’s anyone who can tackle a film project such as this, it’s the famed Wachowskis.
There’s a lot to take in, so much that it’s near impossible to grasp the full impact of the film on its initial viewing. Six seemingly independent stories are explored with each story introducing their own protagonist and dilemma.
1800s: Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is sailing on the Pacific home to his wife and encounters a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) on the boat as well as the suspicious doctor Henry Goose (Tom Hanks). He recounts his adventure in his diary as he grows more and more sickly.
1930s: Aspiring composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) apprentices under famed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) as he learns to craft his own melodies. Their relationship begins to turn violent when Frobisher distances himself in his own work rather than collaborating with Ayrs as detailed in his letters to his foreign lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy)
1970s: Now in his later years, Sixsmith is a retired nuclear physicist who aides journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) in her investigation of a new power plant that has been deemed unsafe by some. It won’t be easy, though, as a hired hitman (Hugo Weaving) has been tasked with eliminating any problems.
2012: Book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) finds himself in hot water after he is threatened by the family of Dermot Hoggins (Hanks), his most successful client to date. Begging his brother to help him out, he finds himself locked away in a nursing home run by the stringent Nurse Noakes (Weaving) where escape is futile.
2140s: Human clone fabricant Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) has escaped from her job working as a hostess with the help of rebel Hae-Joo Im (Sturgess). It is then that she learns the truth of what happens to fabricants after they are released from their work detail.
Hundred years after ‘The Fall’: Valleymen such as Zachary (Hanks) live a more primitive lifestyle while the Prescients have far more advanced technology. Twice a year they come to trade, only this time Meronym (Berry) is determined to find a cure for a plague that is wiping out their people.
As you can see from the descriptions above, each main actor plays anywhere between four and six roles throughout the entire film. That’s partly to keep in line with the overall theme of everything is connected. Moments span across entire generations as characters are essentially “reincarnated” over again, albeit in a different life. Memories of hearing a piece of music before or feeling like they know somebody they’ve never met help connect these seemingly separate stories.
It’s no doubt confusing at first but as the film continues and expands, storylines and connections become clearer. While each story has a vastly different tale to tell, they all share similar themes and motifs that’ll keep audiences engaged and eager to learn the next chapter.
In addition to its clever storytelling mechanics, Cloud Atlas delivers one of the most visually pleasing films of the year. Whether it’s the Tron-like neon glow of a futuristic Neo Soul or the jungle vegetation of a dystopian future, directors Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Lana Wachowski successfully transport audiences to these destinations. Even the actors themselves are near unrecognizable in their various roles. Audible gasps could be heard in the theaters as the credits rolled and the scope of who played who exactly was finally unveiled. The art and makeup department will no doubt be getting an Oscar nomination for their work, as well they should.
At a near three hour runtime, Cloud Atlas is a lot to take in and almost requires repeat viewings. Thankfully, it’s so well done that it’s not a problem. There were so many things that could have easily gone wrong with Cloud Atlas, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer manage to deliver a compelling story and spectacular visuals. It’s definitely not for everyone and is far from the conventional reboots and sequels that plague theaters nowadays. Give it a chance, though, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.