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“Our Lives Are Not Our Own” — Josh Falls in Love with Cloud Atlas

Well, my friends, I have a new front-runner for my favorite film of 2012: the magnificent, heart-breaking, life-affirming Cloud Atlas.

I was never a rabid fan of The Matrix, but I certainly loved that film and felt it represented a bold promise of continuing great work by Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski.  At last, thirteen years later, I feel that promise has been fulfilled as the two, working with Tom Tykwer (who directed the phenomenal Run Lola Runclick here for my review), have written and directed a film that feels to me like a masterpiece.

Adapted by the Wachowskis and Mr. Tykwer from the novel by David Mitchell (which I have never read), Cloud Atlas tells a series of connected, over-lapping stories.  In 1849, a young man faces great peril as he crosses the sea in an effort to deliver an important contract to his father.  In 1936, another young man talks his way into an apprentice-ship with a great but aging composer, hoping the old man will be his sponsor and partner as he works to create what he believes to be a great symphony.  In 1973, a young woman puts her life at risk to investigate the claims made by a now-dead whistle-blower at a nuclear power plant.  In 2012, an elderly book publisher runs afoul of gangsters and his own brother, eventually finding himself committed to an old-age home where he feels he does not belong.  In 2144, a genetically-engineered fabricant created to do nothing more than serve fast-food to the “consumers,” her customers, discovers a chance for freedom from the life for which she has been designed and built.  And 106 winters “after The Fall,” a primitive but good-hearted tribesman is visited by one of the “Prescients,” the few-remaining technologically advanced humans on the planet, and he joins with her on a momentous quest.

Each one of these stories is fabulous and compelling, but the way they weave in and out of one another is nothing short of astounding.  I cannot imagine the challenge of editing this movie together.  There isn’t a simplistic pattern of regularly cutting from one story to another.  Instead, the stories dance in and out of each other.  Sometimes we might cut away to one story for nothing more than a quick shot, or a line of dialogue, before moving on, and other times we linger in one of the time-periods for an extended amount of time.  Sometimes I felt like the film would circle through all six of the main time-periods, while at other times it felt more like we were just traveling back and forth between two or three of the tales, letting those stories play off of one another for a while, before returning to the other stories.  I never felt bored or confused, I never felt anxious to get back to one of the stories that had been left hanging.  I just let myself flow along the currents of story-telling as the film progressed.  It’s a magnificent, at-times magical achievement in editing.  I don’t know how on earth they did it.

Each of the stories has a central character or characters, but adding to the feeling of inter-connectivity between the different stories and the different time-periods, the same ensemble of actors play the roles in each time period.  Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, and Doona Bae are the main leads.  They each anchor one of the stories in one of the time-lines, and they each have roles in each of the other five stories/time-lines.  They’re also joined by a wonderful array of supporting players, all of whom also play multiple roles: Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant all do extraordinary work.  It’s great fun picking out who is who across the stories — many of the actors are almost unrecognizable under their make-up, making it a fun challenge sometimes to identify the actors in the supporting roles.  This is a GOOD thing, allowing us to focus on the characters and not on the actors, but it also adds an entertaining layer of “Oh, wait!  That is so-and-so” as the film progresses (and I must admit to having fun just now reading the character listings on imdb, and discovering that actors like Hugh Grant actually played six different characters in the film, whereas I had only noticed him twice!).  All of the actors and actresses are fantastic — there really isn’t a weak link in the bunch.  Each time I try to identify my favorite performance in the film (boy, Tom Hanks was really fantastic in the post-apocalyptic segment) I think of another great performance I can’t dismiss (I was really taken, for instance, with Halle Berry in the 1973 segment)…

Cloud Atlas is so many different movies in one.  It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it’s a period-piece, it’s a sci-fi action-adventure.  This should be overwhelming, it should feel silly, but it doesn’t.  I was delighted by how the film could easily, without missing a note, shift from ribald comedy to deep tragedy.  I found the film to be terribly affecting and melancholy at times, but also wonderfully joyful and life-affirming even as some of the characters reach their lowest moments.  Cloud Atlas is a film with a lot to say, about humanity, about the good we can do and the crimes we commit against one another, about death and life and the interconnectedness of our lives.  I love the film for its big ideas.  None of these deep thoughts are particularly revelatory, but they feel honest and true to me, and they gave powerful resonance to the stories being told.

The film looks gorgeous, of course.  This is no surprise with the Wachowskis and Mr. Tykwer at the helm.  I was equally convinced by the 1849 sailing ship in the South Pacific as I was by the dark, dystopian vision of Neo-Seoul in 2144.  The visual effects, the sets, the costumes, the make-up, all are wonderful and work together to create a greater tapestry.  OK, occasionally the make-up effects bordered on the silly, but heck, it’s hard to make all of these distinct-looking actors look like completely different characters of different ethnicities!  The make-up works magnificently well most of the time, and even the one-or-two times it stumbles (Hugo Weaving’s Asian look in Neo-Soeul, or Doona Bae’s Caucasian look in 1849), it still works well enough to tell the story being told.

Cloud Atlas is a long movie (almost three hours) with lofty aspirations.  But while this is absolutely a serious work of Art, it never stops being enormous fun from start to finish.  I found it to be deeply moving, a striking work of cinematic originality.  I have no idea why it hasn’t been better-received by audiences and critics (the film is pretty much gone from theaters, just a few weeks after having been released).  I adored it, and am eager to see it again.  I highly recommend this movie.  Right now this is the film-to-beat for my number one spot in my “Best of 2012” list.

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