Cancel your plans for tonight, and go see Cloud Atlas. I'm serious. The Wachowskis (formerly brothers), have achieved absolute success in what was by far the most ambitious film I have ever seen. There are so many reasons why this movie should have been a disaster: the sprawling plot, the enormous demands on the actors and art directors, the oft intense melodrama, and the sheer length of it to boot. But it all worked. Not one of the 164 minutes of Cloud Atlas was anything less than supremely entertaining.
Telling six entirely different (I won't dare say separate) stories at once is no easy task. Films of the grand hotel genre may follow a similar number of plot lines, but I've never seen one where each story could truly have been its own movie. The Wachowskis weave these stand-alone sagas into one elegant tapestry, reinforcing the film's primary philosophical message about the importance of breaking boundaries. It is a real joy to watch the six stories gradually start to overlap and interlock until the film takes shape as a history of humanity in an alternate reality. Though each piece could have been expanded into its own feature, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.
Within each story there is action, comedy, and drama, all of which are executed to perfection. I laughed, I cried, and I was on the edge of my seat. All those cliches and more were true of me as I rode the Cloud Atlas roller-coaster. Admittedly, some of the melodrama drew chuckles from one or two audience members, but not from me. I was sold 100% throughout the film.
As for the acting, it is phenomenal across the board. Cloud Atlas has a true ensemble cast, so while Tom Hanks and Halle Berry get top billing, they are no more integral to the success of the film than anyone else. Hugo Weaving, Doona Bee, Jim Sturgess, and Ben Whishaw are all sensational, and Jim Broadbent is downright hilarious in his primary role as Timothy Cavendish. I say “his primary role,” because all of the major actors play some part in each of the six stories. The range displayed by Tom Hanks is profound, as he vacillates from hero to villain with aplomb. My favorite though was Doona Bee, whose portrayal of Sonmi-451 is absolutely Oscar-worthy.
But Hanks, Bee and the rest don't just change roles for the different stories, its much much more than that. The actors are utterly transformed from scene to scene, transcending age, race, and gender alike. These dramatic metamorphoses actually make the credits into one of the most enjoyable parts of the film. There are several instances when it is truly shocking/amusing to learn who was underneath all that makeup. Changing an actors age convincingly is challenge enough, and gender is even tougher, but never has a film attempted to so boldly change the race of its actors. I honestly don't know how they pulled it off, but they did, and the result is magical.
My only criticism of Cloud Atlas is that I couldn't quite make out all of the dialogue. However, I blame that on IMAX and not on the directors. I find that low, rumbling voices often get lost in the over-the-top bass of IMAX's vaunted sound profile. It certainly didn't help that the post-apocalyptic story line was spoken in a broken English that reflected the downfall of society. But I'd bet that if I could have heard it, this neo-English would have been just another enjoyable facet of a finely crafted film.
In truth, missing bits and pieces of dialogue really isn't such a bad thing. That's because Cloud Atlas is a film which demands multiple viewings on many levels. There is simply no way to take in all of Lana and Andy Wachowski's masterful filmmaking in one sitting. I cannot wait to see it again (maybe not in IMAX this time), and you shouldn't wait to see it once.