“Cloud Atlas” Movie Review

“Epic.” It’s a word that has been tossed around by writers, scholars, and illiterates for several decades. What’s it actually mean? A long story, one typically derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic and legendary figures or in the history of a nation. In the days of yore, authors would create grand masterpieces that fit that description, from the iconic poem Beowulf to the big daddy of them all War and Peace. They were hard to get through but still superb. Nowadays, if you simply typed up the word “epic” into the search bar on YouTube, you’d get somewhere in the neighborhood of 98 million results. Most of them are just stupid comedy videos such as “Most Epic Nerf War in History” or “Epic Battle Music.” I, myself, am guilty of watching those and can safely say that none of them really live up to their titles. It’s completely apparent that many have forgotten in this day and age what the word actually means. On a similar level, they are very few movies that can be appropriately called an epic. To reach that achievement would be to go beyond the boundaries of convention and time. To make one would be to inhabit the modern spirit of David Lean, who made such films as Lawrence of Arabia. To immerse the audience in a world as vast and lush as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. To have an experience on the scale of epics like Titanic just doesn’t seem possible anymore. Along come Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, who absolutely endeavor to create an epic together called Cloud Atlas. It is based on the novel of the same name by David Mitchell, which may be one of the most impressive pieces of modern literature I’ve read. That’s right. I read the book a film was based upon before actually sitting down to watch the film. I rarely do that, but I was so fascinated by the division to a film like this that I was curious. And I sit here at my desktop stunned. Cloud Atlas recounts six separate stories spanning many centuries and many genres. Starting with a dying American lawyer on a 19th century vessel, followed by a forbidden love story with a penniless English composer, cut in the middle with an intense detective conspiracy, making us laugh in the present with an editor on the run from the mob, a neon-soaked future with clones and rebels, and a crazy post-apocalyptic society that has a strange dialect. Whereas in the book each individual story is cut in half and shown in chronological order, the movie edits the stories together seamlessly, scene-to-scene. And despite its mammoth running time of 2 hours and 51 minutes, there’s not a minute wasted or rushed here. It flies by and time becomes nonexistent. And while I could whiff on and rave about its fantastic editing, the point isn’t the stories per-say. In fact, none of them are really given any priority over the other. The point of this film, as well as the novel, is to show us that everything in life and death is connected. As one character puts it, “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a piece of cinema or literature that tackles topics as ambitious as that more brilliantly than Cloud Atlas. By the final 30 minutes of the picture, it brings everything to a head in a very emotionally satisfying way. I acknowledge that this isn’t a perfect movie. There are some editing choices that I would have cleaned up, and I’m pretty sure at least one character was useless. But isn’t it human to be flawed? All of the characters here are flawed individuals. And when a movie takes on such a big task of tackling a massive story, it can be forgiven for a few mistakes. And thankfully, there are only a few. I’m sure if I saw it again, I’d hardly notice any flaws at all the second time. Not to mention its beautiful and sometimes moving soundtrack by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil. Arguably the biggest thread tying everything together is the piece “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which also exists in the book. It’s a gorgeous piano melody that inspires upon first listen. The whole rest of the orchestral score is stunning, but it baffles me that this didn’t get a nomination from the Academy. In fact, the film wasn’t nominated for anything, which either blames tough competition or lack of diverse tastes on part of the voters. I’m usually the kind of guy that likes to get his opinion of a movie out there immediately. But with this particular picture, I had to let it marinate for two straight days and nights. Let every little detail get soaked in and think about the themes of it all. I have rarely seen a movie that forces me to wait overnight to form an official opinion on it. Even more unique is a film that can also be the basic definition of the word “epic.” And I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Cloud Atlas is, indeed, that rare movie. It is as brilliant as it is gorgeous and proves the potential of modern filmmaking. Those who once thought that this novel was “unfilmable” have been proven wrong. While not perfect, it has been on my mind way too much for me to give it any less than high praise. For now, until I decide otherwise, I’ll say this: Cloud Atlas is one of the best movies I have ever seen and one of the best books I’ve ever read.

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