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3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Cloud Atlas
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by Jay Seaver

"More than the sum of its parts, and those parts are pretty darn good."
5 stars

"Cloud Atlas" is like a whole week of going to the movies compressed into three hours (and that's for the likes of me; for the less fanatical, a month or two). It would be a pretty good week, though maybe not a great one, but these filmmakers have definitely made something greater than the sum of its parts.

In 1849, lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) has traveled to the South Pacific but finds himself returning not only with a signed contract, but a runaway slave (David Gyasi). In the 1930s, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whisaw) takes a job as the assistant to composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) while pining for his lover Rufus (James D'Arcy). In 1973, writer Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates suspicious goings-on at a San Francisco nuclear power plant. 2012 has publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) needing to hide out from an author's violent friends but not much liking how it turns out. In the 22nd century, fabricant Sonmi-451 (Bae Doo-na) shows signs of individual thought and is broken out of her dormitory by rebel Chang Hae-joo (Sturgess). Finally, on an isolated island 106 years after the fall, hunter/stroyteller Zachry (Tom Hanks) and visitor Meronym (Berry) find they need each other's help.

My usual tendency when reviewing an anthology movie is to examine each of the elements separately, and there would be a certain logic in attacking Cloud Atlas that way even if the filmmakers choose to cut from one story to another rather than present them as individual short films. After all, the six stories come from different genres - a historical adventure, two flavors of science fiction, a drama, a thriller, and even a comedy - so describing what works and what doesn't would certainly be easier that way. That would sell the movie far short as a whole, though - a large part of what makes it remarkable is how well it comes together. Indeed, there's an argument that the most valuable part of the crew might be editor Alexander Berner, who helps sew together the directorial work of Tom Tykwer (the 1936, 1973, and 2012 threads) and Lana & Andy Wachowski (1849 and the future) so that no single element ever seems to dominate and the whole keeps a remarkably good pace. This movie never seems to drag; even though all six stories climax together, they get there by routes just different enough that the movie never seems to drag.

The stories being cut between are not terribly complicated, but there's enough to them that any could be expanded to an entertaining movie with a little effort, and even the lesser threads are well-done. And while the connections between them are fairly obvious - a common birthmark and a tendency to be drawn to the stories of the other protagonists - the way Tykwer and the Wachowskis (working from David Mitchell's novel) handle those connections is just right. Instead of forcing a somewhat obvious and rote story of karma and reincarnation despite the detail that two of the characters' lives almost certainly overlap, these devices instead serve to highlight that things like social position, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are random and not the signifiers of a person's worth, and one should find love, inspiration, and respect from whatever sources one can. It makes what could just be a story about a single soul into a story about humanity.

It also lets the cast reappear in some fun ways. Sure, they tend to be most noteworthy in their lead roles - Bae Doo-na, especially, is fantastic as a clone rapidly learning what it means to be human, while Tom Hanks does a very nice job of making Zachry understood despite a language that has drifted toward pidgin in the future. But it's also great fun to see them flipped around as familiar faces reappear in different contexts - we get two different sorts of chemistry between Hanks and Berry, for instance, while Jim Broadbent gets to play darker reflections as well as broad comedy. And while some folks seem a bit underused - Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon, for instance, only have a few noteworthy moments even after even after the end credits reveal which heavy makeup jobs they were under - others can't help but rise to the top: Hugo Weaving proves a most flexible villain, threatening even when made up as a stern matron, while Keith David proves able to grab the screen in three different threads.

As you might gather from that description, the makeup work in this movie is something to behold; that old-age makeup doesn't look terribly is hardly surprising given that actors are routinely cast as people of different sexes and ethnicities, and while that's a bit weird at times - recognizing Sturgess, Weaving, and Grant as residents of "New Seoul" isn't quite balanced by seeing Bae in her other roles - the execution is so flawless and without caricature that the quick shots of each actor in his or her various roles in the end credits is more likely to elicit surprised delight rather than offense. That's just the most visible part of an astonishingly well-executed shoot - or actually two, as the end credits are divided between "Team Wachowski" and "Team Tykwer", with the cast by and large the only ones shuttling between the two. While the Wachowskis create astonishingly detailed future worlds, Tom Tykwer's 1973 San Francisco seems equally perfect, with both having a chance to stake some impressive action and getting the characters' quieter moments right as well.

The ambition on display is incredible, to the point where this would be a remarkable movie even if the filmmakers didn't hit so many of their marks. That they do is kind of amazing, and I honestly can't wait to see it a second time just to see how much more is packed into what seems like a very quick three hours.

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originally posted: 10/30/12 03:27:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 48th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 48th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/26/13 DJ 2 long, 2 boreing, jumps around--1 star 1 stars
12/24/13 JASON 3 HOURS OF SHIT-- 1 stars
10/17/13 Bob Dog Best film of the year - - far ahead of it's time! 5 stars
7/21/13 Ronin Terminator 2 is much more moving. Seriously. 3 stars
5/22/13 mr.mike At least it wasn't awful. 3 stars
5/16/13 otHREE confusing even for a phile horrid makeup long to eh point 3 stars
3/08/13 Daniel High Very slow start, and some accents are hard to understand. 3 stars
1/13/13 RestlessRoger I must go back, and back, and back 5 stars
11/21/12 radium56 I still can not describe what I have just seen, but hell yeah! 6 stars! 5 stars
10/30/12 Danny Awful left after half over 1 stars
10/30/12 Chris. Amazing. Can't believe this is in theaters. I will watch multiple times 5 stars
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  26-Oct-2012 (R)
  DVD: 14-May-2013


  DVD: 14-May-2013

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