It's a sad state of affairs: audiences complain that Hollywood is out of ideas – that with all the sequels, reboots, and movies based on TV shows that we're inundated with, the whole damn industry must be creatively bankrupt. But when you get something ambitious, unusual, daring, and challenging like Cloud Atlas, these same audiences stay away in droves because it's weird and they don't know what to make of it and they're afraid to go to a movie they might not understand. So who's really to blame for the plethora of Battleships and Paranormal Activity 4s?
Anyway, on to the film.
Cloud Atlas is based on David Mitchell's 2004 novel, which consists of six different stories – each one nested within the previous, like Russian dolls – with tenuous connections despite the many years (in some cases centuries) between them. The genres range from period dramas to contemporary thrillers to far-in-the-future sci fi. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have taken Mitchell's book and radically restructured it, so that all six stories cut back and forth between each other during the film's two hours and 52 minutes.
Is it confusing? Surprisingly not. Exhausting? Less than you'd think. Original? Sure, if you discount D.W. Griffith pulling a similar stunt back in 1916, in Intolerance. (Its themes aren't even all that different from those in Cloud Atlas.)
But Cloud Atlas' central gimmick lies in its casting of actors in multiple roles. So you get Tom Hanks x 6, Halle Berry x 6, etc. In several cases, each actor is in heavy makeup, often playing characters of different races and even sexes. Admittedly, there are times when the makeup is garish and fake; the film might well win the Oscar for "most" makeup, but the results are highly variable. (During the end credits, each of the main actors is shown in all his or her various incarnations, and I for one was shocked by a few of them, so obviously the makeup work is sometimes successful.)
I don't want to nitpick, though. In plain fact, I saw Cloud Atlas a couple of weeks ago, not even in its proper format, and yet I can't get the thing out of my mind.
This is a movie that I'd say you watch with your right brain, letting yourself get caught up in the action and emotion. Then for days afterwards you let your left brain scour over all the details and find the hidden connections between stories and characters. The conclusion my brain has reached: the "stunt casting" is not "stunt" at all. There's a method to this madness: for instance, the six Tom Hanks characters all share one singular "soul" that just happens to need about 500 years to properly mature. You could pick apart the structure of Cloud Atlas for hours.
The film includes some great work by a couple of my favorite actors, Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw, who haven't yet gotten much exposure stateside. They're so good – as are Jim Sturgess and Jim Broadbent – that I wonder if the film as a whole might have been better if the two biggest parts, played by Hanks and Berry, were given to stronger actors with less marquee value. (Hanks has always done fine work, but he's tasked with a multitude of accents and character traits and doesn't always deliver; Berry is beautiful but bland.) But then I don't suppose the film would have ever been made, so difficult was the filmmakers' struggle for funding (which they ultimately got from individual investors across the world).
Cloud Atlas is a unique experience. You may hate it or find yourself indifferent to it. Or you might fall in love with it. Personally I think it's fantastic, and I can't wait to see it again. But it's such a subjective experience (unlike the flawlessly-made but ultimately unchallenging Argo) that I would never defend it against its detractors. Cloud Atlas is its own thing. Surely it will attract a rabid following over the years. I say beat the cult and see it on the big screen while you can.