Cloud Atlas is certainly one of the most ambitious Hollywood films to date. It is ambitious for two main reasons: The story of the film spans centuries and jumps between stories, and the main actors of the film are recycled in each story by employing advanced makeup and prosthetics to transform the actors into different ages, sexes, and ethnicities. This makes the film quite unique, but unfortunately will not sit well with some viewers. If one is concerned about this, do not fear. It certainly helps to know the book, to love theatrical performances, to love actors and their methods, and to know the more avant garde side of film. If one approaches the film with all of this in mind, and with an open mind, one may find a lot of enjoyment in the complex, interweaving stories in which actors transform themselves immensely in order to play a vast collage of characters. It’s fascinating work.
The actors are the highlight of the film. It’s all quite convincing as soon as the initial shock wears off. This shock is due to the huge transformations that each actor is subjected to. You will see caucasian actors playing asian characters, asian actors playing caucasian characters, black actors playing caucasian characters, men playing women, young actors playing older characters, and a whole lot more. It’s a lot to take in initially, and occasionally the makeup is a bit uncanny. The least successful of these, as always, is the aging makeup. On the other hand, the racial makeup didn’t bother me as much, because it tended to not freeze the actors’ faces, making it easier to take in. However, the audience must realize that this film is literature wrapped in theater wrapped in cinema. Not all films can say this sort of thing. It makes the film unique, but it requires an audience who is willing to let go of their disbelief and watch the film as one would a stage production. The actors are, ultimately, metaphors for the human soul. These souls are born and reborn as the different characters in each timeline. The film places these actors deliberately, in order to connect each character under a common being, and because of this, it ends up being quite self aware. Ultimately the film’s actors play themselves playing others, which is also a bit of an interesting commentary on cinema in general.
After the initial “makeup” shock wears off, it becomes apparent that the actors are actually doing a remarkable job. To be able to pull off such a vast range of characters shows why these actors have chosen their career. Particularly interesting is the performance of Hugo Weaving. He plays a series of villains and is quite convincing, as usual, in doing so. However, he is one of the only male actors to also play a speaking role as a woman, and he ends up being convincingly menacing and humorous doing so. While some of the other performances pale in comparison to his, the acting remains quite strong throughout the film, but in rather a different way than one may be used to. We are quite aware that they are acting, but it is mostly in the contrast between each character that we are able to see to what degree they are doing so. In a way, this could have been a weakness, but in my opinion it ended up being a strength. It truly reinforces the idea that they are souls, occupying different bodies in different ages.
The film is packed with action, romance, mystery, and everything that has widely become attributed to the movies. In this way, even though Cloud Atlas challenges the audience intellectually and asks us to suspend our disbelief more than we’re used to, the film ends up being very entertaining and appealing. I was surprised at how much comedy there is in the film, and how much this is occasionally contrasted with the dark and twisted. It was entertaining and engaging enough that I hardly noticed the 172 minute run time. It keeps us engaged because it is constantly switching focus. We always wonder what’s around the next corner. In addition, it is a mature film, which doesn’t shy away from depicting scenes of violence or using racist terms (as long as it makes sense for the character, of course).
Cinematographically speaking, the film is strong, and the use of CGI and digital manipulation hides itself well, but there is certainly a fair amount of it. Occasionally shots are very beautiful, and there is enough visual motif to separate each timeline and to put us into each era. Particularly interesting to me was the post-apocalyptic Hawaii setting (the furthest in the future). Here we saw deep greens highlighted beautifully with the sun, and even certain characters who have painted themselves a striking red and white pattern that was both alien and terrifying.
The editing, in my opinion, is a little lacking. This sort of film is very hard to edit, however, and I can certainly sympathize with those in that department. The book, for those who don’t know, follows an ‘onion skin’ pattern in which each of the six stories unravels until its midpoint before transitioning to the next story in a chronological pattern. The last story is told in its entirety before the sequence reverses and each story is finished before transitioning to the next one down the chain. However, the film takes on a collage pattern, jumping from story to story on an almost scene-by-scene basis. While it’s all assembled quite well, it could have been better, and will certainly invite confusion from some audience members, especially those who haven’t read the book. Personally, I found it remarkably easy to follow, however I am familiar with the book (even though I read it a long time ago). I did think that the edit could have followed more logical and metaphorical transitions in order to further deepen the connection between each story. Something that is quite downplayed in certain cases is the fact that the timeline is unified by each character having access to a letter, a journal, or a piece of media or video that is informing them as to what happened in the story before them. For example, the journal that a dying lawyer is writing in the first story is being read by the main character in the next story. Another story has been dramatized in the form of a movie that is then viewed by the main character in the next story. The film could have been more tightly edited to show each of these connections and how each leads to the next story.
This all being said, the last quarter of the film is exceptionally strong because of the way it handles the editing. It gets very intense and exciting up until the end, and ends up asking far more philosophical questions of the nature of the soul.
Cloud Atlas is a good film, but an imperfect one. It asks us to suspend our disbelief in ways that we’re not entirely used to, and asks us to engage our intellect and memory in order to track the progression of events. This is not a bad thing, but films that do this kind of thing are very often labeled by the general public as being ‘pretentious,’ which is a term that I despise. That being said, there is a lot to enjoy here, and it will appeal to many different tastes despite its almost avant garde approach to filmmaking. I believe that everyone should give this film a chance, however. It is certainly one of the more interesting films currently in theaters. Just approach it with an open mind and be prepared to exercise your brain trying to keep track of each story.
Art Direction: 6/10
“Film as Entertainment” Rating: 8/10
“Film as Art” Rating: 7/10