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Movie Review: Cloud Atlas

October 26, 2012
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Cloud Atlas is an epic endeavor of filmmaking that is brought to fruition by a trio of visionary directors, Andy and Lana Wachowsky and Tom Tykwer. Not only have they brought us some of the most innovative movies of the last twenty years (Run Lola Run, The Matrix) but they also relish in the art of imagery. When I recall some of their better films, it’s the visuals that come to mind, not the narrative. The Matrix introduced the mainstream to speed ramping, a device in which characters quickly speed up or slow down (which has been to death by now).

The result of these three using their combined efforts is a mind-blowing, sumptuous fete loosely held together by a narrative theme.  Cloud Atlas weaves six separate storylines back and forth through a timeline ranging from the 1800s to the 24th century. Within each story, the filmmakers toy with the chronology of the segment, making the first hour of the film a real head scratcher. You’ll be better served to sit back and let it ride, trusting that the pieces will eventually fall into place rather than trying to figure it out as it goes.

The storylines include a slave on a ship, a gay composer, a nuclear power plant cover up, a nursing home debacle, a clone from 2144 and a goat herder trying to survive in post-apocalyptic times. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, and Susan Sarandon headline the extensive cast. Each cast member plays multiple characters in the movie, and the makeup is done so well that it is difficult to recognize them at times. You’ll probably be surprised when the final credits roll.  In some odd way, I felt like this device further interwove the segments.

Finding the connections through the narrative is a bit trickier. Emancipation and truth seem to be the overall themes of the film. Each segment offers up one character who is somehow repressed. The 2144 clone has no control or free will until a mysterious protector whisks her away, believing she will become future catalyst for a revolution of the oppressed populace. A small sanction of the nursing home occupants are being held there against their will, the composer becomes suicidal because he can’t live an authentic life, a reporter investigating the nuclear plant scandal becomes a target, and the goat-herder and his family are constantly terrorized by marauding tribe. Each of these protagonists is somehow emancipated (physically, mentally or emotionally) from their plight by seeking and finding the truth.

The film sprawls an imposing 172 minutes, but because there is so much going on, it doesn’t feel sluggish, in fact it clips along nicely. Thanks to some impressive film editing, the frequent jumps from story to story work fairly seamlessly.  I enjoyed most of the segments, but the most striking one is the 2144 segment. If you took all the segments from this story and watched them in sequence, even if you took the sound completely away you would still have a satisfying experience. This vision of the future is white, sterile and barren when the clone (Doona Bae) performs her job, but when she is taken away to the city, it’s frenzied, cluttered and loud. Bae herself is exquisite to look at. Her huge expressive eyes, porcelain skin and severe black haircut make her look like a doll, so it is not a long stretch to believe that her character is a manufactured clone.

There are a few things that pop up in subsequent segments; many of the characters share a unique birthmark, and those in the know will appreciate how a reference to Soylent Green ties into another storyline. Repeated viewings are sure to reveal some others.  Cloud Atlas is sure to frustrate mainstream audiences. There will probably be a lot of walkouts from people who have no idea what they are getting into. Those dragging their families to the theater this weekend because they want to check out the new Tom Hanks movie will be sorely disappointed.  But for the true film fan, this is an absolute must see. Much like Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life, this will be the subject of heated debate, but at least it is capable of creating debate, unlike most the drivel in theaters today.

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