Allow me to offer a piece of advice: If you intend on seeing Cloud Atlas this weekend, you must be willing to enter the theatre with an open heart.
Having an open mind goes without saying, of course, as it is a base requirement for enjoying or interpreting most art. Open hearts, on the other hand, are harder to come by, for emotions are often much more difficult to process than thoughts. We find the ethereal, inexplicable nature of feelings challenging, and the emotions that hit closest to home are wont to cause us discomfort. Modern movie audiences are, I would argue, more willing to try wrapping their heads around the intellectually or narratively complex than they are to open themselves up to cinematic expressions of raw, genuine emotion.
Cloud Atlas contains both, but leans towards the latter. This is a film that bears its heart on its sleeve, a film that offers, without irony or restraint, an impassioned portrait of humanity’s existential beauty, a beauty disconnected from conventional limits of mortality or bourgeois reserve. Through their art, writers/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer bare their hearts and souls with such strength and conviction that those conditioned to be emotionally closeted in the movie theatre will be immediately alienated. One must not necessarily agree with the filmmakers’ belief in the power of love or fleeting nature of death to enjoy Cloud Atlas, but one must be willing to accept and internalize the complex, challenging feelings created by the drama before engaging in any sort of critical discussion with the work itself. Those who reject Cloud Atlas outright will not do so for the story mechanics or stylistic audacity, I wager, but because the heartfelt, emotional ideology behind the storytelling will prove too raw and strong-spirited.
No matter. Cloud Atlas is a staggering masterpiece, a positively inspired piece of filmmaking that blows the lid off cinematic convention and uses unparalleled artistry to tell a story that encompasses the whole of human experience. It is not just the most ambitious and revolutionary film of 2012, but the best of the year to date, and one of the most singularly unique and powerful cinematic milestones of the modern era.
The film takes place in six separate time periods, each with their own narrative and characters, although many of the same actors – including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Hugo Weaving – appear in every section, often in heavy prosthetics, sometimes cast in a different ethnicity or gender than their own. Each story conforms to a distinct genre – Broadbent stars in a screwball comedy, Berry in a 1970s detective noir, Hanks in a post-apocalyptic epic, etc. – each has unique aesthetics and production design – ranging from simple 19th century historical accuracy to complex, futuristic sci-fi dystopia – and each is so thoroughly detailed and rich with life that they could all function spectacularly as standalone shorts.
Yet as different as each period, style, story, or character may appear on the surface, Cloud Atlas is all about emphasizing similarity. The tales are not told separately, but intercut, often at a rapid, instinctual pace that highlights thematic connections among the narratives. When a familiar actor appears in a new part, we automatically start drawing comparisons, or begin pondering the significance of this individual’s recurrence throughout history. As the film moves along, more literal connections are drawn, as characters from one time learn the history of those from another, or one person’s actions in the past influence an individual’s choices in the future.
The film is almost impossible to explain or deconstruct through written analysis, for it relies so heavily on visual and aural form that the most meaningful interpretations will happen in the theatre, as the viewer finds intellectual and, more importantly, emotional connections in the stories that lead to broader, more significant truths. The film has innumerable topics on its mind, from the power of storytelling in all its various forms – writing, filmmaking, music, etc. – to the healing, eternal nature of love to, at its very core, a broad and existential conversation about the ripple effects our lives leave behind.
The film preaches no particular religion or set philosophy, but is instead built around what I see as a fairly universal certainty: That we are affected by forces of the past, and that our decisions in life will long outlive us, no matter how small they may seem in the moment. That no life is truly insignificant, for everything we do directly influences someone else, and the chain reactions we start each day give birth to forces much larger than ourselves. That at our very best, we can each make a tremendous, positive difference in the lives of others, both in our own time and throughout the grand, macrocosmic scale of history.
When everything is tied together in the last half hour, and Tykwer and the Wachowskis land their biggest, most devastating and uplifting punches, I found the experience almost unbearably emotional. I say you must watch this film with an open heart because the filmmakers have truly laid it all on the line, have opened their hearts as fully as possible and offered an artistic window into their own deep-seated beliefs on love, life, death, friendship, and so much more. It is rare I see filmmakers work so hard to hide so little, to use cinematic expression to its fullest to relate such intensely personal thoughts, feelings, and philosophies.
That Lana Wachowski in particular has chosen this moment in her career to go public with her gender transition is not a coincidence; Cloud Atlas is built on discussions of identity, acceptance, and equality, and I can scarcely imagine the bravery and artistic clarity it took her to express, in dramatic, narrative terms, the complex yet inspiring worldview of her life’s journey. Few films are made with such heartfelt, blinding passion as Cloud Atlas, and fewer works still are this clear, coherent, and impactful.
The film is also, of course, an absolutely stunning technical achievement, the kind of revolutionary step forward that cinema experiences only once in a great while. Not only is every time period a fully realized triumph unto itself – from period settings to complex, detailed futures – but through some of the most impressive editing I have ever seen, Tykwer and the Wachowskis tie it all together in one fluid, lucid stream of cinematic consciousness. There is a grand, visceral pleasure in absorbing the film’s remarkable editing style, as we cut throughout human history, past and present, with music, narration, or dialogue linking the scenes. Has any other film ever given this much thought to the spatial relations of time? It seems like an intuitive impossibility, and yet by the thirty-minute mark, it feels like a bold new frontier of cinematic language has been both discovered and perfected.
Tykwer composed the music for the film, alongside Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, and it is easily the most accomplished score of the year. Music is literally ingrained into the fabric of the film, as the chief composition – the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ – exists in the film’s diegesis, a work of Ben Whishaw’s Robert Frobisher that other characters hear throughout the eons. It is a truly gorgeous, heart-wrenching piece of music, and is surrounded by equally powerful material. The synergy created by the music, visuals, and editing is simply transcendent.
The acting too is magnificent, each member of the ensemble performing without fear or ego and seamlessly transforming themselves into a piece of the film’s artistic tapestry. Every major actor plays two or more roles – Tom Hanks and Hugo Weaving each master at least six, with Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent not far behind – and no matter the amount of makeup or difficulty of the part, nobody turns in anything less than stellar, career-defining work. I struggle to remember a time when Hanks has ever been this daring or provocative – and I say that as someone who loves the actor dearly – but as much attention as he shall no doubt receive, it’s Broadbent and Whishaw who are the clearest highlights; the latter declares himself a major dramatic force to be reckoned with in the film’s most compelling role, and the former pushes his own considerable abilities to new, touching heights.
When one watches as many films as I do, it is easy to start sensing a general ‘sameness’ in everything one sees, whether it is good or bad, and to fool oneself into believing that there are limits to what the medium can accomplish. But Cloud Atlas is truly original and wildly accomplished on every conceivable level, as innovative, unique, and extraordinary a cinematic experience as I have ever witnessed. It is the sort of modern movie miracle I can forever point to when I feel my faith in film shaken, the kind of bold and beautiful artistic statement that all filmmakers should strive for when given a major, high-budget opportunity. By nearly every measure I can think of, technically, thematically, and emotionally, Cloud Atlas is a rousing, astonishing triumph, and the best film to hit theatres so far this year.