**** (out of 5)
October 26, 2012
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
BY KEVIN CARR
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“Cloud Atlas” is one of those rare films that you have a chance to see only once every few years or so. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s a unique opportunity. In essence, “Cloud Atlas” is one massive $100 million art film experiment, made by big-budget directors and financed by a major studio.
So whatever your thoughts are on its problems, including the overreacting complaints about racial insensitivity and overall pretentiousness, it’s a film that should be at least respected for the ambition behind it.
It’s also not an easy film to review, especially while maintaining a level of candor without spoiling things. Yet beyond the challenge of not giving things away, it’s a challenge to simply blurb the film into a short two- or three-sentence paragraph.
This is because “Cloud Atlas” isn’t just one movie. It’s six movies, all of which take place in various points in human existence. There’s a contemporary segment, two futuristic ones, and three from the past. Moreover, each of these segments is given its own look and feel. The 1970s mystery story has an urban punch that reminds me of films like “Three Days of the Condor,” for example, while the contemporary one has a whimsical lighthearted nature of a spunky British comedy.
Of course, one of the futuristic ones that takes place in the high-tech world of Neo Seoul more than a hundred years in our future is what most people would expect from the Wachowskis, who brought us “The Matrix” trilogy and “Speed Racer.” But these two directors show with “Cloud Atlas” that their strong vision is more than just CGI technology and futuristic action.
Still, “Cloud Atlas” isn’t all the Wachowskis. It’s also got the fingerprints of Tom Tykwer, who gave us the impressive German film “Run Lola Run” more than a decade ago. These three directors share a vision but let each other shine with his or her own style and capabilities. And the film is better for it.
The six stories span centuries, but they feature similar themes of oppression, hope and freedom. These are simple, common concepts we see in many other films, and that makes the movie relatively easy to digest for the mainstream audience.
Though don’t let those somewhat simple story elements lead you to believe “Cloud Atlas” isn’t a thoroughly complex film. It weaves the stories together with an often brisk pace. So intertwined are the themes that narration is often used from one story to underlay what’s happening in another one.
To make things even more interesting is the choice of the directors to use many of the same actors in all the different parts of the film. You have men playing women, women playing men, and people of various races playing others. This yields the not-surprising cries of “Yellowface!” from an easily offended public. But to do so is as absurd as crying foul on the character of Lincoln Osiris in “Tropic Thunder.” Racism is not the point of the film, but rather the characters showing up in various forms but carrying with them their core elements.
And let’s face it… I don’t hear any redhead organizations complaining that Korean actress Doona Bae plays a ginger in one scene. If you’re going to fixate on such minutia, the movie and its noble themes are lost on you.
Sure, there are problems with “Cloud Atlas.” It runs too long in some parts, though it’s not as bloated as the Wachowskis’ previous effort, “Speed Racer.” And depending on your tastes, you’re going to find some of the stories not completely to your liking. And there’s some odd choices in presentation, such as the weird feral-sounding Cajun dialect that Tom Hanks and Halle Berry break out in one of the futuristic segments.
Still, with all these warts, “Cloud Atlas” is still a great film. It moves at a brisk pace, especially for a three-hour movie, and it remains visually interesting throughout. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen lately that I am eager to revisit to see if anything new bubbles to the surface.
It might have trouble finding a mainstream audience, but it’s a movie that should be given a chance because you’re unlikely to see anything like it again anytime soon.