A film that features Halle Berry as an elderly Korean man definitely deserves to be called, as Roger Ebert, movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times put it, “one of the most ambitious films ever made.” Cloud Atlas is that and more.
Not only does the film tell six stories, from the 1840s to the far off future, it also requires actors to portray characters that cross gender and ethnic lines - such as Berry’s aforementioned role. That may sound preposterous and even laughable, but the final product is a glorious triumph in storytelling and a visual splendor.
To attempt to describe the film’s six interconnected storylines would be a fruitless and maddening endeavor. What does the journey of a young musician hoping to become a master composer in 1930s England have to do with an oppressed waitress who eventually becomes a messiah of her futuristic society?
The fact is that the stories don’t have much to do with each other. Each tells an individual journey that is unique and, in all honesty, most aren’t interesting enough to be sustainable on their own.
That’s not the purpose of Cloud Atlas, however. By crosscutting these stories together, a spirited message arises. Whether you’re a lawyer slowly dying in the 1800s or hardened man in post-apocalyptic tribe or an ambitious journalist trying to uncover a conspiracy in 1970s San Francisco, the human experience is the same. We collide with others, fall in love and ultimately die. Everything in between is just a little different.
The visual experience of Cloud Atlas is so powerful that it helps these themes appear more insightful than they actually are. The movie-going experience is so enthralling that it’s easy to overlook the simplistic thematic elements.
Having the actors play multiple roles throughout the film accentuates the idea of a common human experience. The makeup and costumes are so well done that there are instances that it is near impossible to identify the actor underneath.
Only occasionally does this become distracting. During a segment that takes place predominantly in a nursing home, Hugo Weaving plays an overbearing and cruel nurse. While Weaving is a very accomplished actor, he simply isn’t convincing as a woman. It takes focus away from the story and briefly slows the film’s momentum.
The actual film production is just as unconventional as the time-jumping storytelling. Cloud Atlas has not one but three directors who worked on two completely different sets with their own crews. Lana and Andy Wachowski, the duo behind The Matrix and V for Vendetta, directed three of the six segments of the film while Tom Tykwer, director of Run Lola Run, crafted the others.
While the directors are each known for incorporating quirky visuals, they still have vastly distinctive styles. Despite this, Cloud Atlas is united and whole. The movie might be comprised of segments, but it doesn’t feel segmented.
Cloud Atlas is a wildly ambitious movie. It’s unlike anything ever captured on film before. While the actual movie falls a little short of its borderline avant-garde presentation, the film’s sheer audacity deserves heaps of credit.