Cloud Atlas is unlike its contemporaries at the multiplex. It tells a big story in an engaging, difficult fashion. It has big names and a big budget. But it also is thematically dense
it wants to tell you something through plot, characters, dialogue and symbols. Cloud Atlas is also thankfully a very enjoyable film, much longer and denser than much of what is available today. "Ambition" defines this film.
In just under 3 hours, six radically different stories are told, and they appeal to a broad audience: a 19th century tale of unlikely brotherhood, the letters of a gay composer to his partner in the 1930's, a San Francisco- set conspiracy in the 70's, A hilarious account of an old publisher's woes. A Blade Runner-esque clone's struggle for freedom, and the survival of a tribe after 'The Fall'. Genre conventions are toppled, as these stories with different tones are juggled in short intervals, leading from comedic highs to shocking drama in minutes.
But as with the characters, these plots are connected thematically, and clever wordplay and visual imagery links the stories, such as the end of a monologue referencing "the gates of Hell" and cutting to a shot of the gates of a building that, for Cavendish at least, is the gates of Hell. Each of the stories has strengths, a few have faults, but together the medley is incredible.
I found that while the earliest two stories began slowly and plainly, they developed very well and provided fantastic drama, especially the 1849 story. The Nuclear thriller was strong, Halle Berry is great and there are some real twists, and I also loved the 'Dirty Harry' and 'China Syndrome' vibes, but comedy bled into it from the 2012 story which diminished the climax. The 2012 story is hilarious, and its first scene is a standout; Tom Hanks is incredible as Dermot Hoggins. Although while the story is interesting, it doesn't fit quite so well thematically- it's almost too light. Listening to the 'Cloud Atlas Sextet' fits with all the stories, but can't resonate with Cavendish's. The future Korea is visually stunning and communicates its themes well, certainly the darkest plot, but the action can get over the top (Yes, I know who directed this) and there are some horrible clichés. But that scene of horrendous dialogue, the weakest in the film, can't derail a great piece. Lastly is the bleak, Hawaii- set post-apocalyptic story. It was my favourite, possibly because I'm a sucker for anything involving apocalypse. But Hanks and Berry are fantastic again, the barbarians are menacing and scary, and the story is cool. It also concludes the film perfectly.
I've only talked about the plot! The actors really steal the show. In the credits, each actor's name is placed with a clip of every one of their characters
everyone in the theatre stopped and stayed. People play characters you had no idea they played. A few highlights: Sturgess' lawyer and the slave Autua, Frobisher, Hugh Grant's sexist nuclear boss, Cavendish and Hanks' Hoggins. Doona Bae as Somni and Hugo Weaving's "Old Georgie" round it out- the latter is truly a demon. Much credit has to go to the makeup, literally making actors disappear into their roles. There is a huge number of transsexual and even race-bridging roles- it's worthy of note that Lana Wachowski was at one point Larry Wachowski. Also deserving of praise, and possibly Oscars is the large scale visual effects that cover hundreds of years and look so believable. Sound quality is top-notch as well, listening to Old Georgie is chilling, as is the vision of Korean diners, and well... the whole future.
But all this plot serves a purpose, and Cloud Atlas intends to tell you things. Freedom is possibly the biggest theme, as well as the idea that our actions affect others greatly throughout time: we're part of a large human network. Really though there's so much to talk about you should just see the film. There are small stumbles every so often, but the structure hides them very well. No one story takes more time than others, no one character takes more time than others, and the structure and pacing drives the film forward briskly. It's a shame this film hasn't been better received commercially, because it's a phenomenal achievement, interesting sci-fi and drama, and as of now, the best film I've seen in 2012. 8.8/10