by Jeff Beck, Guest Film Critic
REVIEW: "Cloud Atlas" Depicts Fascinating Foundation, Unique Storytelling

“Cloud Atlas” is a film that is destined to be as polarizing as it is intriguing, as even those who dislike it will more than likely marvel at its construction. It is an epic with a method of storytelling that, at least to my knowledge, has not been attempted before. There will no doubt be people who will find it maddening to have to jump back and forth between six different stories for nearly three hours, while at the same time there will be those that will find the transitions less and less disorienting as the film progresses. The Wachowski Siblings, along with Tom Tykwer, have dared to try something different, and the result is something quite unique.

As the film covers multiple storylines, trying to give you a detailed synopsis of each would take up half of this review, so I’ll be brief. The stories range from the mid-19th century to the mid-24th century, telling tales that include a doctor (Tom Hanks) treating a patient (Jim Sturgess) aboard a sailing vessel, a composer (Ben Wishaw) trying to become rich and famous, a journalist (Halle Berry) trying to uncover the mystery of a nuclear power plant, a publisher (Jim Broadbent) trying to escape a retirement home, a rebellious clone (Doona Bae), and a valleyman (Tom Hanks) helping a woman (Halle Berry) to contact her people.

At first, it may seem like these stories have absolutely nothing to do with each other. However, as the film goes on, the connections become a little clearer. Some of the connections are rather obvious, such as one character appearing in two stories at different times in their life. Then there are the connections that only reveal themselves slowly, such as common themes between the tales. For instance, in several of the stories, there are themes of helping others, imprisonment, and the desire for freedom.

By now, most people are aware that several actors in the film play multiple roles throughout the various stories. Hanks, for example, plays two different doctors as well as the valleyman in the 24th century (in addition to a few other roles). There will be those that try to connect the dots between the roles, but I believe the best way to look at it is as Hanks playing both sides of human nature, as well as a further exploration of the themes. As one of the doctors and the valleyman, his characters strive to do good by helping those in need, while as the other doctor and an author, he shows the other side of the coin. He even plays a hotel manager that’s a bit of both, i.e. willing to help, but for a price.

It is the exploration of these themes, as well as the unique storytelling method, that give “Cloud Atlas” a fascinating foundation. As I mention earlier, it tells six different stories, jumping amongst them rather quickly at times, so it does take a little while to get situated with what’s happening in each at first. However, once that happens, all you have to do is sit back and let the film take hold of you as it fills you in little by little on each of the stories.

That being said, I do have to add that not every story being told here is as compelling as some of the others, leading to multiple spots of the film that felt like lulls. Just because a film has a fascinating method of telling the story doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories themselves are going to be fascinating. Many of them are rather entertaining and vary distinctly in genre. To name a few examples, the journalist trying to investigate the nuclear power plant is an intriguing mystery, while the rebellious clone in the future is more dramatically driven. Perhaps the strangest of all the stories is the one revolving around the publisher trying to escape the retirement home, which is the only comedic tale amongst the others. In this way, the film offers you a little variety amongst the more emotionally-heavy tales.

 

Something else that really needs to be mentioned is the phenomenal editing job by Alexander Berner. There are those who say that one of the largest parts of making a film is the editing, something that couldn’t be truer for an ambitious project such as this. This could not have been an easy film to assemble, given the intricacies of all six stories and the need to put everything together just right to show how it works as a whole, but he pulled it off marvelously.

 

Another matter I mentioned earlier was that “Cloud Atlas” was destined to be a polarizing film, something that has already been proven given the critics’ reactions. There are those that hail it as an incredible masterpiece, marveling at everything about it from its epic scope to its enthralling narrative, while others have dismissed it as pretentious, boring, and over-long. As far as I’m concerned, I’m at more of a middle ground, though closer to the former than the latter.

 

The epic scope is indeed impressive, but parts of the stories are a little dull. What I marveled at here was mainly the storytelling method and the film’s construction. Given the number of tales being told, I was surprised that it flowed as smoothly as it did, which, again, is due in large part to Berner’s masterful editing. Perhaps after getting the story details out of the way, a second viewing would be able to reveal more insights that one is not able to see on the first time through.

Either way you look at it, this is indeed a very ambitious project that the Wachowskis and Tykwer have made. They may have fallen short of the greatness that they were reaching for, but they’ve still assembled something that will have people talking for quite a while. Something else I’ve said repeatedly is that I’d rather see directors try something unique and fail rather than make something clichéd right off of an assembly line. The great thing here is that not only did they try, but they didn’t fail. This could have easily been a mess, but it succeeds in many more ways than it doesn’t. However, as to how much of an impact the film has, only the individual viewer can say. 3/4 stars.