Where does one start with Cloud Atlas, an epic multi-stranded story set over many periods of time, featuring many iterations of the same people in different stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Keith David and more appear in these many stories directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. Cloud Atlas is insane, and messy, and absolutely outstanding.
Starting with Tom Hanks in old-man make-up, mumbling pigeon English by a fire at night, it's clear that Cloud Atlas wants to let you know you're sitting up and watching for the next 3 hours. It's not a film for the passive audience. As a montage of story set-ups begin, we see Ben Whishaw as a depressed musician writing letters to his forbidden lover, Jim Sturgess on a beach with a crazy doctor Tom Hanks, hunting for treasure, Jim Broadbent beginning to write a novel, Halle Berry driving through protestors for an important interview and Doona Bae waking up with multiple versions of herself, and heading to an odd-looking restaurant.
Each story is cut together well and as the film progresses, focussing up on one story or two at a time, with snippets of others to keep the audience remembering everything at once is handled solidly. The best use, though is the Jim Broadbent wackadoo comedy escape adventure intercut with Ben Whishaw's sad tale of a young musical genius being unable to interact with his lover whilst working for a mean-spirited composer. Comedy and tragedy side-by-side. Cartoony and very serious alongside, could have destroyed the film, makes it so much stronger.
Those two may be the least in terms of high concepts, science fiction or history-making elements, as Sturgess' adventure involves freeing slaves and Halle Berry's 70's journalist is in a part-thriller part-conspiracy plot that is exciting, intense and has Keith David in a gun/car fight against Hugo Weaving. Amazing.
As the film plays out in many different strands it becomes increasingly implausible that the film was the work of two different directing teams, the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer. Stylistically it's consistent, performances feel as together as they can for a film of many stories, and it fits well together, with no distinguishable differences when sequences intercut. It's truly extraordinary that the film can work so well with all the cooks in the kitchen. When the credits arrive and you can see what segments were "Team Tykwer" and such, it may make you respond with a "I guess so", but really all the segments have flourishes and stylistic elements that could be from both team's works. Thrust together, Cloud Atlas doesn't look dramatically different per segment like short film compilations might, but each era has a colour scheme and obvious nods, particularly in the 1970's one, to the films of the era, the technology of the time and the period it is set in beyond the props and costumes.
It's a tough film to discuss and review because of the many facets held within the long runtime, a 3 hours that doesn't feel lean but neither does it flag. To put a human face on it, as I personally watched this film, I couldn't quite believe that this was a film that exists. A miracle, surely, that so much talent on and off screen has come together to make a film that looks odd, sounds weird, is a hard sell and deals with some deep human thoughts which really don't get discussed much in the world of cinema. Past lives, human condition, butterfly wing flaps, love, life, comedy, tragedy, action, horror, drama, romance, Cloud Atlas is all those things and more, and in no way is it perfect. In no way is a human perfect. In no way is a relationship perfect. In no way, then, could Cloud Atlas ever be perfect, and the flaws, the mess, everything that should hinder a film from being great adds texture to a wonderful overlapping multi-stranded story that might not seem like it's going anywhere big in-particular, but finds a way to end strong without the audience realising what the film has done. As you leave the film, tears in the eyes, song in your head, Cloud Atlas has done something to you that so few films have done of late. Cloud Atlas makes you contemplate humanity.
An unbelievable adaptation of a novel that should never work, but manages to be the first 5 star film of 2013, with stunning performances from Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent, Tom Hanks is ridiculously good too and Halle Berry makes sure we forgive her for Movie 43 with relative ease. If you catch one three-hour film this year, Cloud Atlas is the one. Simply put, stunning.