This is one of those movies that you desperately want to be good. And it is good but it can’t meet the high expectations that we might’ve had. We’ve got a stellar cast, an intriguing story, and a high-concept structure that might entertain and might alienate.
“From womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present.” This is a story of past and future lives, in which we are bound to make the mistakes. Or are we? Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, and many more star in this film about reincarnation and how our lives and deeds reverberate through time.
This is a high-concept film, as there are essentially six storylines told in vastly different environments, ranging from an 1800s slaving ship to a post-apocolyptic tribe struggling with encroaching cannibals. Each actor plays multiple roles, sometimes obviously and sometimes not so much. Their roles are also across gender and race, resulting in some incredible makeup work.
I’m a sucker for spectacle and the sheer amount of work that went into this movie is astounding, as it not only boasts six different storylines but several large setpieces within each story. Just the futuristic version of Korea is astounding on its own. The makeup is also spectacular, as you’re constantly trying to see through the facade to discover which actor/actress is underneath.
And in terms of story, it’s a tremendous tale. As we watch characters come together and fall apart throughout multiple generations, it’s very satisfying and intriguing. Even small details help us easily transition into these new times, such as the sounds of horse hooves transforming into the sound of a locomotive. There was a lot of care put into this movie and it definitely shows.
Credit has to be given to the actors because, in addition to the makeup, they embraced each character differently and were completely believable as different characters. A standout is Jim Sturgess, who stands out as both the son of a slaver aboard an 1800s ship and also as a Korean revolutionary in the distant future. He has some fight scenes in the latter that are amazing. Both of these stories are touching and probably the most emotionally-rewarding stories of the film. Hugo Weaving stands out as the villain in most of these tales, especially dreadful as “Old Georgie,” a figment of Tom Hanks’ imagination in post-apocalyptic Korea.
The music is also central to the story, as a young composer works to create the Cloud Atlas Sextet. As the music comes together in his story, the stories we’re watching slowly start to come together as well. The theme is haunting and yet beautiful, echoing the same tone of the film.
What doesn’t work?
With an endeavor this large, it’s hard to meet our monumental expectations. Cloud Atlas doesn’t reach those heights. While the stories are touching, they fail to really pack a punch in the end, lacking that moment where everything clicks into place. Only two of the six stories really had any sort of emotional impact on me and I didn’t get that satisfaction I had been looking forward to.
And while the makeup is spectacular, you do spend most of your time trying to discover who’s who or when this actor will show up in the current story. It does detract from the experience because you stop relating to the story as soon as you start focusing on “Oh my gosh, Hugh Grant looks so different.” While it is a successful makeup endeavor, it does detract from the immersion of the experience.
The concept of six stories overlapping (and a run time of nearly 3 hours) also might alienate more casual moviegoers. I have a feeling that this film will have a huge cult following but many might shrug off this movie because it wasn’t that accessible to them.
Some great work here and personally, I loved it. But it had definite flaws. The three hour trip didn’t have the payoff that I wanted and sometimes the concept took you out of the experience, either by jarring transitions or by thinking about the makeup and which actor is underneath. For the amount of work involved though, I have to give this film high marks. Without films like this, we’d never push the boundaries. We’d never try new things. I, for one, am getting tired of seeing sequels and reboots and I applaud the willingness to try something new and creative and risky. For nothing else, see this movie for the fact that this cast and crew poured themselves into it completely. Sometimes you may look at art and not understand it, but you know that it’s a great piece of art. Cloud Atlas is definitely a great piece of art.