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The powerful ambition of Cloud Atlas'

November 1, 2012
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Film offers look at the constancy of the soul

There's something to be said for ambition.

The current cinematic culture doesn't appear to have a whole lot of room for ambitious undertakings anymore at least in terms of storytelling. It's all about massive CGI extravaganzas and franchises, remakes and reboots. It sometimes seems that no one is willing or able to tell an original story in an original way anymore.

And then something like 'Cloud Atlas' comes along.

This film, based on the 2004 David Mitchell novel of the same name, is perhaps one of the most achingly ambitious film projects of the 21st century. The story was adapted to the screen by Tom Tykwer ('Run Lola Run') and Andy and Lana Wachowski (the 'Matrix' trilogy); the three also directed the film in tandem.

The novel was deemed by many (including the author) to be unfilmable. However, Tykwer and the Wachowskis were undeterred, finding their own path to constructing a coherent screen narrative from Mitchell's disjointed and far-flung epic. Finding a way to make a movie out of the book's half-dozen distinct, yet interconnected storylines would be an ambitious undertaking indeed. But they were determined to try.

Did they succeed? Yes and no.

Attempting to summarize the plot of 'Cloud Atlas' is a fool's game. The story unfolds in six different times and places a young man's arduous shipboard journey in the late 1800s; a troubled composer's attempt to create his masterpiece in the 1930s; a journalist's attempt to solve the mysteries of a nuclear power plant in the 1970s; an elderly publisher's attempt to salvage his sinking life in 2012; a genetically engineered servant's forbidden voyage of self-discovery in the 22nd century; a tribesman's quest to help an outsider contact the world beyond in a post-apocalyptic far future and the film leaps from storyline to storyline at will.

The connecting thread of 'Cloud Atlas' is intended to be the continuation of souls; the idea that acts in the past influence the present and future. Each 'soul' advances through time, growing and evolving, being shaped by each continuum's thoughts and deeds. In an inspired attempt to convey that, the film uses a core group of actors playing multiple roles throughout the various timelines. Luminaries such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant make multiple appearances, as do Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Keith David and James D'Arcy. The size and significance of their respective roles vary from story to story, with each actor receiving multiple chances to shine.

The epically sprawling nature of the film is inescapable. By crossing back and forth across the centuries, 'Cloud Atlas' offers a magnificent sense of scale that is different than anything we've seen on screen. The movie takes full advantage of every one of its 164 minutes of runtime; the viewer is presented with image after beautiful image. The ambitions of the filmmakers are evident in each and every lovingly-rendered frame.

The directing tandem split the storylines right down the middle; the Wachowskis took the helm for the 1800s storyline and the two future timelines, while Tykwer was in command of the '30s, '70s and present-day arcs. The potential for disconnect between the two directorial teams is significant, but what stylistic differences there are seem to be more complimentary than contradictory. In terms of aesthetic, all three are obviously on the same page.

However, 'Cloud Atlas' has its issues. There is a bit of unevenness; some of the storylines are better-realized than others. The constant leaping back and forth between story arcs occasionally presents some problems; it's sometimes tough to maintain a sense of the big picture as we bounce around. And while the multiple-roles conceit mostly works wonderfully, there are a few moments where it presents a distraction usually due to odd makeup or effects choices. An argument could be made that the individual stories don't have quite enough significance on their own, thus detracting from the overall effectiveness of the whole.

'Cloud Atlas' is a massive (and sometimes messy) undertaking. There is no escaping its imperfections some of which are obvious, if not quite glaring but there is also no denying its power and ambitious nature. The idea of constancy through the ages is not a new one, but this movie explores it in a new way. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have managed something significant; they have found a new way to tell a story; a story that is, in a lot of ways, about the very nature of storytelling.

Maybe you like it, maybe you don't. Either way, 'Cloud Atlas' is undeniably challenging.

3.5 out of 5

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