You’ll have to excuse me, I’m a little confused.
I came out of watching Cloud Atlas, an epic 162 minute long exploration in storytelling consisting of six strands spanning 472 years with a cast taking on multiple roles, with my mind fully blown only to discover when researching the film online that it had been panned by the critics, ignored by American audiences, and completely snubbed by all major award ceremonies. What was going on? Did I see the same film?
Recently I have been struggling to stay awake in the cinema as films constantly breach the two-hour mark without managing to keep me engaged for the duration. Prometheus, Lincoln, and Holy Motors have all been treated to the sight of me jerking awake after my brain has decided it would rather make its own entertainment than continue watching the events unfolding on-screen. Cloud Atlas is minutes away from entering three-hour territory and yet the time flew by and I was enthralled throughout. If your film’s duration equals that of The Hobbit and I manage to stay awake even after a full day’s work then you deserve an instant five stars.
Speaking of The Hobbit… In the same amount of time Cloud Atlas manages to tell six different stories whilst Peter Jackson ekes out just one third of a book. In David Mitchell’s original novel the six different plots (three in the past, one in the present, and two in the future) are each told in two parts. Each story’s first half follows another before they are each concluded in reverse order. In the film adaptation the six stories are introduced one after another and then inter-cut and overlap throughout the rest of the film.
The constant swapping of storylines is disorientating at first and the film demands your full attention in order that you manage to follow all the various threads running concurrently. Perhaps it is this active engagement that had me so engrossed. I couldn’t let my mind wander for a moment for fear of losing my footing as six stories unfolded at once. Not only does the narrative sextet span various time periods; the film also encompasses every genre of film there is. Drama, comedy, romance, fantasy, thriller, mystery, sci-fi, and adventure are all represented next to, on top of, and through one another.
The monologue of a lovestruck man from 1936 will play out over footage from a dystopian future and a slave rigging the sails on a boat in the mid-19th century will smash cut into a laser fight high above a city without anything jarring. The three directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski have created a superb cinematic blend of styles, tones, and genres. What ties the six threads together isn’t necessarily obvious and certainly isn’t obliquely explained to the audience; another sign that this is not a film underestimating its audience but expecting them to keep up and think for themselves.
As mentioned earlier the majority of characters across the diverse plots are played by the same core cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Keith David all play between four and six distinct characters, often taking on various genders, ages, and races with the aid of some excellent prosthetics. Hugh Grant is frequently the first to admit that he mostly plays the same character in all his films but in Cloud Atlas he raises his game to match those around him. Everyone is on top form and it is a shame that so much work has gone into a film that has been completely overlooked.
Cloud Atlas is a visual feast filled with every genre of film and every emotion. I always hesitate to use this word but there’s no denying that Cloud Atlas truly is epic. Amazing that fantasy, comedy, drama, thriller, romance, sci-fi and period settings can all meld into the one film. Mind-blowing.