Ever since I saw BOUND in the theater back in 1996, I was hooked on the Wachowski Bros. Then they broke out into the mainstream with the Matrix trilogy. I loved the first one, liked the second and was disappointed with the third. But I think SPEED RACER is extremely underrated. It’s a movie filled with imagination and is lots of fun. As much as a cartoon as a live-action film can get. Then we have director Tom Tykwer. I fell in love with his films too ever since I saw RUN LOLA RUN. I also liked PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR, and PERFUME. But I didn’t really care for THE INTERNATIONAL, though it boasts one of the best shootouts in the past 10 years. Now when I first heard that the 3 directors were joining forces to make a movie, I was intrigued. Then when I saw the trailer, I was confused. What the heck is CLOUD ATLAS supposed to be? Then when I heard that it was going to have multiple actors taking on different characters (sometimes of different races and genders), and that the movie was going to have 6 stories going on simultaneously, I began to get worried. How the heck were they going to pull this off? This was either going to be a work of genius or a big train wreck. There’s no in between here.
What is this movie about? Well, to be honest it’s super hard to explain and the best way to go into the movie is not knowing anything about it. If you really want to know, I’ll do my best to explain it, but it’s going to be difficult. CLOUD ATLAS is 6 stories taking place during different time periods. Everyone of these stories feature the same actors playing different characters (with the exception of James D’Arcy who plays a younger and older version of one character). Now, these stories connect with each other, but not really in the literal sense. In a spiritual and cerebral sense. It’s going to frustrate the average movie goer who just wants to watch a mindless blockbuster. It’s epic in scope and ambition, but it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen or experienced before. It’s a movie that requires multiple viewings. It’s a movie that will spark many conversations.
I’ll do my best to tell you briefly about the 6 storylines. It all begins with Tom Hanks playing an old man, telling a story by a campfire. This leads us into our movie:
The 1st story takes place in the 19th century and is directed by the Wachowski’s. It stars Jim Sturgess as a man on a voyage across the ocean. He befriends a black stowaway. During the voyage, Sturgess becomes gravely ill because the Doctor (Tom Hanks) is slowly poisoning him so he can steal his treasure.
The 2nd one by Tom Tykwer is about a young gay musician (Ben Winshaw) who is working with a famous composer (Jim Broadbent) on a new piece of music during WWII. Their bond grows closer when Broadbent finds out that Winshaw is enormously talented and writing his own 6-part symphony, called The Cloud Atlas.
The 3rd, also by , is fashioned like a 70’s thriller (think 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR), as it also takes place in the 70’s. Halle Berry plays a crack investigative reporter about to blow the lid on some big corporation. Tom Hanks plays a man working for the corporation who decides to help her. But soon, an assassin (Hugo Weaving) is after the two of them. Also, the wonderful Keith David plays another assassin who has a change of heart.
The 4th takes place in the present. Jim Broadbent plays a publisher who gets locked up in a nursing home, from the result of his brother (Hugh Grant) playing a prank on him. The only thing is, the stern and muscular nurse (Weaving) will not let him leave. So Broadbent teams up with some of the residents to plan an escape. Tykwer helmed this one as well and is the only one that is a flat out comedy.
The Wachowski’s directed the next two. The 5th takes place in Korea during the 23rd century. A robot servant (Doona Bae) is rescued by a rebel played by Jim Sturgess (made to look Korean). Sturgess informs the robot on what is wrong with the world and she soon joins his revolution.
The final story takes place in the far post-apocalyptic future. Tom Hanks plays a leader of a tribe living on a tropical island who must protect his family from the evil cannibals, led by an unrecognizable Hugh Grant. Their island is visited by a space vessel, and Halle Berry is one of the passengers. She asks Hanks to guide her to a certain area where she thinks she might find some answers to the meaning of existence.
I still don’t think I’ve done any of these storylines justice. There’s just so much going on in all of them that it’s hard to explain it all. Anyway, I’ll get to the questions you’re all asking. Is this thing any good? Does it make any sense? Is it a big heaping mess? My answers to those three questions are: Yes, Yes, and No.
I’ll be honest. During the first 30 minutes, since they introduce so many stories and characters all at once, it was a bit jarring. I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to catch up with it. But I stuck with it, and you know what? I did catch up with it. And I became engaged with all 6 storylines. By the time the movie was half over I was hooked! This is a movie that requires your attention. This is a movie you see in the theater and give it all of your attention. This isn’t a movie that you rent and knit while you half-pay attention. This movie requires you to work. But the work will pay off and you will be rewarded with one of the most entertaining films of the year.
I enjoyed all six stories. But when you have this many, there is always going to be some you enjoyed more than others. But I will say that none of the stories are duds, and all of them at least have a few stand out moments. My personal favorite one is the 70’s one. That’s probably because I am a huge fan of 70’s thrillers. It’s my favorite era of filmmaking. Tykwer does a marvelous job of not only re-creating the period, but emulating the films from that period. Halle Berry does a great job as the reporter, while Tom Hanks is effectively understated. Hugo Weaving is menacing as usual. But for me, Keith David is the real standout here. Dressed a bit like John Shaft, he’s a real bad ass. It was such a thrill seeing him in a big budget Hollywood film dominating scenes as the hero. An absolute pleasure for this film geek! There are also some great moments and set pieces. Like when Halle Berry’s car is run off a bridge and into the water. This is all shot in one take from inside the car. And then the glass begins to crack from the water pressure. What a great sequence, and this story is full of moments like that. I also love when Weaving shoots a victim and then Berry knocks at the door, Weaving walks right up to the door waiting to shoot through it. Is he going to kill her? That is a real intense moment. So yeah, I loved this story.
You expect the special effects-filled futuristic story would be awesome in something like this (and it is), but I was more surprised by how much I liked the present day sequence, which is a very funny comedy. Broadbent is wonderful as the publisher stuck in the nursing home. This sequence even has a crowd-pleasing pay off. Tom Hanks can also be seen as one of Broadbent’s authors who speaks in a cockney accent and swears every other word. I have never seen Hanks attempt a character like this and it’s very damn amusing. His scene has a shockingly hilarious payoff. Hugo Weaving, in drag, as the nurse also brought a smile to my face.
The action in the Korean Sci-Fi segment boasts some of the most impressive visual effects of the year. This story took a little time for me to understand, but once I got it, I really dug it. Some of the shootouts and chases are about as impressive as the ones in the MATRIX movies. Jim Sturgess is really convincing as an Asian action hero. This segment seems to be the one that people are noticing in the trailer. Every time I talk to someone about the CLOUD ATLAS trailer, they always talk about the sci-fi moments. Just to let you know. It’s much more than that.
The second segment has some really good interaction between Broadbent and Winshaw. Probably my least favorite segment (but still really good) was the 19th century one on the ship, though it ends on a triumphant note. Tom Hanks is really good in this too as a really,really creepy bad guy with rotten teeth. And the final post apocalyptic segment is the one that is the most spiritual. It also has some really intense moments, like when Hanks finds his family killed by the cannibals. It’s during this segment that they try to connect everything. Oh yeah. Hugo Weaving also plays Hanks’ conscious in this one, as some sort of snake creature. It’s weird, but it makes sense when you see it. This was really cool!
Now, there are many people who are going to have intellectual conversations about what everything meant and blah, blah, blah. Now, I’m not very smart. I’m not intellectual at all. I recognized that his movie was sophisticated and smart, but I wasn’t trying to find deep meaning. What I did get were 6 entertaining stories told in an ambitious manner. I’m not sure if I was clear or not earlier, but the stories are not presented separately. All 6 story lines are intertwined. Sometimes they’ll spend 10 minutes at a time on one, and then only 30 seconds of another. But there is a method to the madness. There is a rhythm that the movie follows. The editing is quite amazing, because it’s cut in a way that the suspense from one segment carries into another. The only way I can explain it is to compare it to RETURN OF THE JEDI. Remember when there were 3 things going on in the finale (the death star battle, the battle of Endor, and the lightsaber duel), and they kept on cutting between all three, generating even more suspense? That’s kind of what CLOUD ATLAS is like. You’re on the edge of your seat from one story, then it switches to another and you’re still on the edge of your seat. Every time it switched to another story, I was like: “Oh yeah, this one. Now what’s going to happen?”. I was riveted by every plot line.
The acting is outstanding by everyone. Some people may be distracted by trying to figure out who everyone is, but just go with it. Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent are both excellent, each doing things out of their comfort zone and succeeding tremendously. I think both should be nominated for Oscars. Halle Berry, who has been in bit of a slump lately, is surprisingly solid in all her roles. Like I said, Keith David is ass kicking in everything he attempts here, especially the 70’s sequence (also, did you notice the poster I used at the top? Keith David is front and center! YES!!!). Hugh Grant doesn’t have any huge parts, but he’s effective in all of them. How many times are you going to see Hugh Grant in cannibal makeup licking a blood drenched machete? It’s awesome! And of course, Hugo Weaving stands out in every scene he’s in. So many good things to say about the actors, but I don’t want to make this review 50 paragraphs long. Let’s just say, stay through the credits so you can see a visual role call of who everyone played. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.
The direction is outstanding. Even though the Wachowski’s and Tykwer directed different segments, it actually feels like the work of one visionary filmmaker. Even though some of the stories are so different from one another in tone, it all flows together really well. The 3 directors also adapted the screenplay together, and it’s kind of brilliant how it all fits together. The music, co-written by Tykwer himself, also plays an important part in how the film stays together.
Now, you have to like being challenged by films to enjoy this. If you just want a popcorn movie, TAKEN 2 is still out in theaters. No! This is a movie that you have to pay attention to. I can honestly see the common film goer checking out within the first 15 minutes because they’re going to be confused. And yes, you ARE going to be confused, but only temporarily. Trust me when I say that you’re in good hands. These filmmakers knew exactly what they’re doing. Even if you’re not sure if it’s your cup of tea, I ask you to open your mind and give it a try. And don’t let the nearly 3 hour run time scare you. The movie moves by extremely fast as it felt to me like it was under 2 hours to me.
This is a movie that demands repeat viewings. It took me nearly an hour to get into the movie completely, but that’s because I didn’t know where it was taking me. I have a feeling that now I know where the movie goes, I will feel more at ease watching the entire movie the second time, possibly liking it even more. I don’t necessarily understand all of the metaphysical stuff, cause I’m not too bright, but I was thoroughly entertained by this wonderfully ambitious project. ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.
– Running time: 2hrs 51min.