That word is not sufficient to describe the experience of watching Cloud Atlas, a breathtaking work of cinematic art made by one of my favourite directors, Tom Tykwer, together with the Wachowski siblings. All three of these writers/directors enjoy thinking outside the box and experimenting with new ways of making film. This film certainly qualifies as such an experiment, though it’s a big budget experiment with clear ties to Hollywood (even if independently financed).
There were times when Cloud Atlas felt like a Hollywood film, but mostly it felt like an odd European film (something Terry Gilliam might make, for example), which it is. It’s very long but it’s the kind of film you don’t want to end. And it doesn’t feel long because it never slows down long enough to notice the passage of time. More specifically, very few scenes are more than a minute in length and I’m sure the majority are closer to twenty seconds. If that isn’t hard enough on those of us who still have long attention spans, the scenes bounce back and forth through 500 years of time (between 1849 and 2349), telling six different stories which happen to feature most of the same actors (well-disguised, of course, though I recognized most of them immediately). I will make no attempt to tell you what the six stories are about.
By now, you should have a feel for how bizarre a film Cloud Atlas is. It’s a sci-fi film, an action-adventure film, an historical drama, a mystery, a romance and so on. One does eventually get into each of the six stories, short scene by short scene, but trying to tie the six stories together to see the big picture of how lives across time impact each other is a feat that surely can’t be contemplated until a second or third viewing, which is absolutely required, though I’m not sure how I’ll pull it off before it leaves the theatres (since I am on the road for most of the next month).
Cloud Atlas stars Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Tykwer-favourite, Ben Whishaw, among others. Each of these plays five or six different roles and, for the most part, they do so extremely well. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, the score is magnificent and the six stories are all worth watching, though I appreciated some much more than others. Cloud Atlas is based on the novel by David Mitchell, which has been sitting in a stack of books beside my bed for three years, waiting to be read. Had I known what it was about, I suspect I would have read it long ago. Now I am both afraid and eager to do so.
As wonderful as Cloud Atlas is, it suffers, alas, from at least one serious flaw, one that I am particularly sensitive to, namely redemptive violence. While some of the stories are much more violent than others, it is a feature found in most of them and almost always in a redemptive (often revengeful) way that I abhor. So sad. As in Looper, the violence is not meant to be enjoyed, even when a baddie gets it, so that’s good, at least.
Of course, the violence is part of the big picture in Cloud Atlas, a big picture which has to do with standing up (like Jesus? - there is at least one crucifixion scene) against the Domination Systems of whatever time you happen to find yourself in and, well, darn if that isn’t as good a reason to make a film as any I can think of, even if you mess it up with violence. Cloud Atlas is not content with dealing with just one favourite theme of mine but also throws in the themes of how we are all connected, impacting the lives around us every minute (even the lives of people in the distant future), and how, as one character says twice, “By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Cloud Atlas is full of memorable lines and wondrous ideas. I suspect I will love it even more after the second viewing. If that is the case, it may very well become my favourite film of 2012 (though there are still some treasures awaiting at the end of what has been a dull year for film). An easy ****. My mug is up and overflowing with rich flavours.
BUT BE WARNED: Many critics panned Cloud Atlas, so obviously this is not for everyone.