Many critics are patronizingly dismissing Cloud Atlas as a noble failure, as though the film’s outrageously creative vision and tremendous ambition are somehow negative qualities. In fact, it is Cloud Atlas’s willingness and eagerness to push boundaries in every sense imaginable is precisely why it should be celebrated. Brimming with audaciousness and technical innovation Cloud Atlas is pure spectacle, sparking the imagination and exploring new cinematic possibilities.
I dare you to come up with another film this year that so boldly and successfully weaves such a magnificent tapestry using story and art direction to span centuries and far into the future. The look of the film is eye-popping, the technical bravado on display is a pure thrill to watch, and there is an abundance of interest in each carefully composed shot. Whether staggering special effects or elaborately staged, gorgeously-lit action sequences (on ships or in ‘70s San Francisco), the Wachowskis (Lana and Andy) and Tom Tykwer have made a challenging, fragmented film narrative that is matched at every turn by a breathtakingly edited assemblage of imagery that introduces the audience to a myriad of intriguing stories and characters.
In my mind, no ensemble has been more fearless this year. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, two of the most recognizable movie stars in the world, fearlessly experiment in their various characterizations with a ravenous zest; they sink their teeth into multiple roles that allow them to go to places neither has ever been in their respective careers. Theirs is an inspired and risky pairing that ends up serving the film perfectly and never feels gimmicky. Susan Sarandon (also a force in Arbitrage this year) and Ben Whishaw (also terrific in Skyfall as “Q”) add an emotional rootedness, while Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant provide a grandly operatic theatricality that has the vivaciousness of a great, colorful stage production. Doona Bae manages to be both vulnerable and electric, commanding the screen with a riveting presence in every scene she appears in.
It takes an exceptionally talented cast, one willing to collectively add flourishes of the absurd and perhaps unexplainable, to create something crackling with such fresh and daring energy. Each actor revels in being put through their paces and the level of commitment from all involved comes through clearly.
When the directors, actors and technicians all challenge themselves in such a rigorous way, there is an implicit expectation that the audience will act as co-conspirators and also challenge themselves by giving themselves over to the journey and suspending their disbelief to become truly active participants. That’s a tall order in these days where paying movie-goers are mostly not up for being pushed into new places by their entertainment and sort of demand the answers be easy and spoon-fed. Cloud Atlas doesn’t let anyone off the hook, thankfully, and the risk is well worth the reward.