The navel-gazing nature Cloud Atlas could have produced a self-indulgent mess... but the Wachowskis have given a lesson in blending style and ambition ...
In the South Pacific of 1849 a young man seeks out the guidance of dodgy doctor, a meeting that will take them to the stormy high seas; in 1930s Edinburgh a young and gifted composer begins work on a legendary piece of music and plays a long-game of deception in service to a love that dare not yet speak its name; in 1973, a dynamic young reporter begins to uncover the dangerous pieces of an energy conspiracy at the newly-opened nuclear power-plant; in 2012 an irascible book publisher turns a client's reckless behaviour to his advantage and then has to escape his own new prison; in a future Seoul a bio-manufactured girl is told she will bring about a revolution and change the world and even further in the future, a flawed, cowardly man gets a final shot at redeeming not just himself but the human race...
In what sounds like - and could actually be - totally different films, the worlds and time-frames described in the adaptation of David Mitchell's book Cloud Atlas, are all part of a bigger story about how people's actions and lives resonate beyond their own and down through the ages in small and massive ways.
This is a film built to divide audiences on several levels. The Wachowskis' Matrix movies became increasingly vapid as they became reliant on the sheer spectacle of evolving CGI technology, shoe-horning pseudo-religion into what was little more than a canvas for VFX (impressive though those were). What that trilogy was missing was any real sense of heart to accompany its muscles and that's what Cloud Atlas ultimately benefits from. Yes, the complex, interweaving narratives require patience, concentration and a certain amount of indulgence, but the Wachowskis (and co-director Tom Tykwer) have apparently learned the lesson that Michael Bay never will: that 'epic' doesn't mean bigger, louder and 'splodier, it means powerful and ambitious on a multitude of levels. Those wanting an empty wham-bang momentum of carnage and set-pieces might as well go to see the latest Die Hard, but Cloud Atlas works better as an anthology of more character-driven pieces that just happen to play key roles in a bigger picture. It doesn't hurt that the star-wattage is there too: Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgesss, Ben Whishaw and eastern actress Doona Bae are just some of the names involved.
The two future timescapes are beautifully realised - each in their own way. The techno-eastern setting of Neo-Seoul is perhaps the most resonant metropolis since Blade Runner and provides the most kinetic of the stories - complete with anti-gravity cars, vividly disparate market-places and dystopian laser-gun battles. But it also gives us a human story of a replicant-like girl learning of the bigger world outside her fast-food, pod-restricted existence. The further futurescape, long after most of mankind has either died or left for the stars is the rural counterbalance to the urban story. Here Hanks is the almost aboriginal hunstman guiding a more technically-advanced Halle Berry towards a haunted place in the mountains - complete with his own demons dogging his every foot-step.
All the ensemble of actors are generally at the top of their game, enthusiastically embracing the rare opportunity to play a range of roles, some for which they would never normally be asked to even audition... (Grant as a tattooed cannibal warlord? Weaving as a Ratchett-esque 'care' attendant? Sturgess as a Scottish soccer-fan? Enjoy such moments...) Hanks is impressive in almost all his roles, but the film does occasionally overplay its hand. Hanks' turn as an Irish bruiser turned author - comes across as pure caricature with an unconvincing accent and prosthetics and Sarandon at one point also dons an equally unlikely proboscis. But a few over-enthusiastic make-up decisions aside, the performers give it their all and if there's a problem in the inherent spot-the-performer temptations, it will also pull in an audience familiar with the A-Listers who might not have chanced their money on a non-name film... and it's also a tribute to the actors that there's probably at least one performance in each case where you'll utterly fail to identify them.
Think of this as an unlikely mixture of The Matrix, Love Actually, Blade Runner, Master and Commander, Atonement, The China Syndrome and... well, you're still not that close to deciding what makes this film tick. But what Cloud Atlas does is homage the best at the same time as providing something different - not a pale imitation, but its own variation on a bigger theme, like the signature melody that plays throughout. The story doffs its hat to at least two plot-points that well-versed fans of classic science-fiction will immediately recognise, but these seem wholly intentional (and are even referenced elsewhere on-screen if you listen carefully). Both are important to their particular strands, but because they are threads in a bigger tapestry, it doesn't feel cheap or too opportunistic or a case of deja-vu. It's often tempting to prescribe deeper meaning to lightweight material to bolster its reputation, but it's hard not to applaud the sheer ambition here and there's little doubt that the Wachowskis have given us a love letter to both the nature of cinema's different 'genres' and the power of cause and effect - good and bad - down the ages.
Like a massive diamond in the rough, it’s the inherent flaws that somehow still give it character and shine the light in unexpected ways. Some, weaned on an industry that all too often offers streamlined plots, cardboard icons and readymade meal-scripting, may be bored as it meanders along, demanding your complete attention between the moments of high drama and true spectacle. It may not be wholly perfect... losing the finer details and deeper motivations of its original source material and perhaps being TOO diverse for any one audience.. but the result, in this reviewer's opinion, is a superb example of real heart, ambition, scope and style. It shows up more recent self-proclaimed 'epics' for the stale formula they've become... in a way that's frankly embarrassing.
At worst it's a wake-up call for other film-makers to try harder and reach for the stars rather than their joysticks. At best, it's a magnificent movie-masterclass the like of which we haven't seen for far too long... outstanding.