An amazingly complex, delightfully human sci-fi epic
Cloud Atlas, a nearly three hour sci-fi epic based on the book of the same title featuring an anthology of stories from the past, present and future, filled me with mixed feelings when I walked into a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. After all, the Wachowski brothers hadn’t made a good movie since The Matrix and co-director Tom Tykwer hadn’t made an international splash since Run Lola Run.
My expectations were therefore transformed by the incredible job done by the aforementioned trio of directors (side note: Larry Wachowski is now Lana), in what immediately became one of my favorite films of the year.
Packing an amazing, trippy science-fiction epic vibe, the film stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. The actors play multiple characters in elaborate makeup in six different story lines that travel back and forth in time.
The six threads of Cloud Atlas (which also refers to a musical piece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet), are the following: an 1860s tale about a man (Sturgess) traveling by boat across the Pacific, befriended by a greedy conman (Hanks); a tale set in 1931 about a talented young musician (Ben Whishaw) helping a famous composer (Broadbent) transcribe his current piece of music; a circa-1970s investigative reporter (Berry) looking into a murder and cover-up at a nuclear plant; a current tale about a publisher (Broadbent) with money problems plagued by a black gangster (Hanks); a futuristic Korea circa 2144 (with a set design right out of Blade Runner) in a tale about a rebellion doomed to failure; and a post-apocalyptic tale in Hawaii hundreds of years in the future featuring Hanks as a tribesman visited by one of the last survivors (Berry) of the modern world that no longer exists.
The deeper we go, the more these different threads wind together into a tale of humanity’s flaws and the search for meaning in the universe. It is a lot funnier — in a good way — than the summation suggests. Often the problem with films that zip back and forth between different stories is that some of the tales are weaker than others and you get annoyed when the current engaging tale suddenly shifts to another story you don’t like at all. That was certainly not a problem with Cloud Atlas.
Despite the desire to play “where’s Waldo” and figure out which actors are which in the numerous make-up shifts (one of my favorites was Hugo Weaving as a nasty nurse at a prison-like nursing home), it will only be a minor distraction. These engaging stories and the brilliant way the trio of directors have pieced all these elements into a delightful whole is a cinematic magic trick that keeps on giving for 163 minutes.
While all the actors are terrific in parts both major and minor, Hanks is the central focus, the most obvious example of humanity’s best (the tribesman) and worst traits (the conman). This is a movie that demands multiple viewings, and should earn multiple Academy Award nominations.
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