I could not explain to anyone what Cloud Atlas is about. I am not sure if it is an accurate adaptation of the novel. (I only read half of it, and to paraphrase the film, “A half-finished book is like a half-finished love affair.”) I am sure that it is one of the most daring, unique films of the year. Too often, I am frustrated by filmmakers who think that ambiguity and philosophy are forbidden topics in cinema. Cloud Atlas uses multiple stories to examine what it means to be human, and how any life makes a difference. It is this year’s Tree of Life.
It would be impossible to describe the plot of Cloud Atlas. That’s part of the point of the film – it is about the discovery. During its almost three-hour run time, Hugo Weaving puts on leather gloves to play a hit man, puts on drag to play a sadistic nurse at an insane asylum, and puts on green make up to play Satan. And it all makes sense in context. The film is composed of six stories, taking place at very different times and places – from an Industrial Revolution era sailing vessel to an unspecified post apocalyptic era in which mankind is living in a tribal society. Each of the actors play several roles (some of which, technically speaking, are not human characters), and all of the stories are subtly linked through images, locations, lines of dialogue, birthmarks, and the characterizations of the protagonists.
The end result was a difficult effort on everyone’s part. But what differentiates Cloud Atlas from works like Tree of Life is the fact that the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker all use the material as a showcase for the actors’ talents. They are all required to play wildly different characters, rather than (as the trailer suggests) the same people reincarnated in different eras. And they succeed; this is one of the few times I can recall Tom Hanks playing a villain without his performance devolving into a camp spectacle. It is also a film in which I could tell you the different characters each actor plays, rather than just identifying the actor in question. All the actors disappear into each of their roles, despite the major strain it would place on any one of them.
But that is just an afterthought. Most people, watching Cloud Atlas, will wonder what in God’s name they have just watched. As I stated, I am not sure I can help them understand it. But then, to me, this is a strength rather than a weakness. Art is something that is supposed to be open to interpretation. AndCloud Atlas keeps itself as open as possible. This will be a maddening experience for some people. The film currently holds a 63% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I suppose I can understand why – the film is so unique that most will be unable to properly assess it.
But I disagree with that notion. Cloud Atlas is about the journey and not the conclusion. And it is done in such a professional way that it is impossible to ignore. Even the three director strategy works. Each of the segments feels appropriate; the futuristic scenes are convincing, the 1936 scenes feel like Merchant Ivory, and the 2012 scenes offer some of the best comedic moments of the year. The film feels like an all you can eat buffet of gourmet food. There is plenty of material, and all of it is so exquisitely done that everyone is destined to find at least one moment they like.
But the film affected me in a more profound way. Walking out of Cloud Atlas, I felt good to be alive. Alright, I suppose I am not above using emotional responses. Film is, after all, about feelings rather than facts. But the film’s analytical approach to its feelings creates a proper respect for life. I am just as surprised as anyone about how a three-hour space/time opera can be labelled the feel good film of the year. I will close with another man’s statements. When I saw it, someone in the audience told us all to stay through the credits. He also said that this was his third time seeing in theaters since it opened a week ago. That kind of publicity that is impossible to buy.