'Cloud Atlas' Is an Ecstatic Exploration of Humanity

Adapted from David Mitchell's ambitious novel, Cloud Atlas is at once a visually rich Hollywood blockbuster and a philosophically driven experimental film.

Cloud Atlas

Director: Tom Twyker, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Ben Wishaw
Distributor: Warner
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-05-14

Cloud Atlas has been a controversial movie since it's filming was first announced. Critics argued that writer Tom Twyker and the directorial team of Twyker, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski simply couldn't bring the gravity of the novel to the big screen. The film's theatrical release saw intense division among critics and audiences. For some, the film seemed like a poorly plotted attempt to capture the ephemera of Mitchell's novel. For others, Cloud Atlas was the perfect combination of big-budget effects and creative storytelling. The simultaneous DVD, Blu-Ray and digital release gives movie watchers the opportunity to evaluate the film again.

As an experimental film, Cloud Atlas succeeds in creating gorgeous narrative and visual parallels. The stories of six different characters are interwoven. Each of these storylines is set in its own time and place; each story, too, is set in its own genre. By invoking different genres and temporal spaces, the directors manage to convey authenticity to each of their characters. This is particularly praiseworthy given that many of the actors play six different roles. Ingenious makeup and costume design paired with the stellar talents makes for a universe that is both multilinear and symbiotic.

Twyker's screenplay incorporates the themes of continuity and reincarnation that were woven throughout Mitchell's novel. Speaking about the film, Tom Hanks said that it was more than just an adaptation of a book. He calls Cloud Atlas an extension and play of the original work's central ideas and characters, a sort of "Cloud Atlas 2.0". As we watch Hanks change from the spiteful Henry Goose to the troubled Isaac Sachs to post-apocalyptic islander Zachry, we see how the consequences and actions of one life carry into another. We see similar development in the storyline of Luisa Rey as she slowly progresses into the skin of Meronym (Halle Berry), struggling all the way to meet up to her expectations of herself.

Over and over again, we see how characters change from storyline to storyline—and how they remain the same. Illustrating this change so effectively is one of the reasons Cloud Atlas is worthy viewing for fans of sci-fi and action movies as well as for fans of serious, experimental cinema. Cloud Atlas is a true hybrid that loses none of its narrative power in order to make its point. While some fans of the novel complained that the film altered the intent of the book too much, it's important to pay close attention to how well both artifacts speak to Mitchell's themes. Despite their narrative differences, both versions of Cloud Atlas are a perfect iteration of timeless themes. The film's unconventional structure is precisely what allows it to make meaning.

Two of the film's most compelling storylines explore the story of Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), a physicist whose lifelong dedication to his young lover is apparent every moment he is on the screen. The letters that his lover Robert Frobisher (Ben Wishaw) writes to him provide much of the film's framework. Twyker has done an excellent job of choosing some of the most beautiful lines in Mitchell's book to give the film its shape. As Frobisher talks about love and the purpose of his life, we see greater truths revealed across multiple storylines. The film's sound editing is spot-on and illuminates the connections between the aural and the visual even when their sources don't match.

Nowhere is this more true than with the orison of Sonmi~451 (Doona Bae). One of the film's more tragic figures, Sonmi~451 is a fabricant produced to serve the needs of a future consumer society. Through a chain of events that are a vibration from the past and the future, Sonmi~451 becomes an important figure speaking for freedom while explicating the duties that one human has to another. Whether her future has yet occurred or not, her words echo through all of the film's six storylines. She provides the glue that holds the story together and helps to clarify its meaning to viewers. The individual performances of Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and David Gyasi dance around Sonmi~451's revelation, with each performance special in its own way.

One of the best parts about Cloud Atlas is that it comes as a revelation at every viewing. Every time we watche the film, we find something entirely new. The connections, both visual and aural, are so immense in scope that they cannot be absorbed entirely after many viewings. Even diehard fans of the novel will appreciate the art with which Twyker and the Wachowskis have created strong visual correspondences between each storyline, despite their very different settings and narrative styles.

The Blu-Ray's special features offer viewers a host of information about the making of the film and the themes that drive the story. A special feature on the film's sci-fi setting and its score will appeal to viewers who are most interested in the fantasy elements. In-depth discussions with the featured actors about filming and their perception of the storyline shed light on the processes that drove the creation of the movie. The DVD offers only one special feature sequence that includes bits and pieces from most of the special features included on the Blu-Ray disc. Serious fans are advised to invest in the Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital combo package.


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