(Spoilers. But I really think you should read this review, so here's a study which shows knowing spoilers beforehand doesn't ruin, but actually enhances your enjoyment of a story. )
Cloud Atlas is my favorite movie. It is a three-hour sci-fi, action, everything, epic directed by the Wachowskis (The duo who created The Matrix). For those who haven't seen the film I suggest taking a look at this gorgeous six-minute extended trailer, one the greatest trailers ever.
Wasn't that mesmerising? Now imagine that, just for 3 hours.
The first time I completed Cloud Atlas, I was blown away. I silently sat in my room, shaken, contemplative for about 20 minutes, like I'd just been transported and transformed. I've watched the movie six times since, making it a tradition to watch it every one to two years, and it still has that same effect.
In terms of filmmaking, Cloud Atlas is a marvel. The lighting, cinematography, locations, costumes, are all so impeccably crafted. The action scenes have this unique kinetic vibrancy that is enthralling to witness, expected of course from the people who revolutionised action choreography with The Matrix.
The film has all the big-named actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving). It cost 100 million dollars to make and was almost abandoned several times due to lack of finance. It's a miracle that a film of this budget, of this scale, yet with such thought-provoking, ambitious storytelling was created. It will be a long time before something like that is achieved again.
But let's talk about the main reason why I love this movie so much, the story (adapted from the novel of the same name).
The film tells seven interconnected tales of characters from vastly different cultures and eras, and all the stories have the common theme of rebelling against unjust authority and uncovering truth.
For example: in the 1970s, a Journalist risks assassination trying to uncover a conspiracy, where self-interested businessmen seek to create a catastrophe at a nuclear reactor. In the 1800s, a white aristocrat named 'Adam Ewing', has a family complicit in slavery, yet after Adam's life is saved by a slave, he leaves his family to join the abolition movement. In the 1930s, the musician, Robert Frobisher (My favorite character). bright, hopeful, immensely talented, has his work plagiarised by 'Ayrs', his music mentor. Ayrs demands credit for Frobisher's compositions or else he'll expose Frobisher's bisexuality, destroying his reputation forever. Frobisher eventually shoots Ayrs, and commits suicide himself.
In 2144, Somni, an artificial intelligence with human-like qualities, developed to be used as slave labor for humans, escapes and is eventually part of a rebel movement. She makes a public broadcast of the horrors of the slave labor, before eventually being recaptured and executed.
Some of these stories end happy, some of them end tragic, though overall the film is hopeful, framing tragic events as an inevitable part of fighting for the greater good. And once the credits roll, you feel absolutely invigorated. As someone who literally rebelled against a dictatorship and got arrested, I think Cloud Atlas might have influenced that decision.
And as important as the theme of truth, is the theme of love. In these stories, love, whether it's towards a partner or a parent, motivates these characters.
What's even more spectacular is how all these stories are connected. These narratives are in different eras, but in the same timeline. Sometimes the characters of one generation influence the actions of another, sometimes they're connected by a simple artifact (a half-finished book, a piece of music). It isn't even subtle, they've got the same actors who were main characters play a completely different side character in another story ('disguised' with pretty well-applied make up and costumes).
All this to make the point that all our lives are connected. Humans across time are different, yet share similarities, and that each act of courage and kindness sends ripples across generations that eventually leads to a revolution. Absolutely fucking profound.
To further encapsulate the idea, this mantra is repeated multiple times by different characters:
'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'
How the movie tells seven stories at once is fascinating. It typically shows a portion of a tale at a time (Showing the first-quarter of the seven stories, then showing the second-quarter of each story etc.). And during the 40-minute mark, the middle, and towards the end, there are these two-minute montages that kind of serves as checkpoints to the film. Unlike most of the movie where the narratives are spread out, these montages shows the character's actions in quick succession, interspersed with dramatic music and a monologue.
These montages are the best moments of Cloud Atlas, and the sequence in the middle is I feel the greatest cinematic moment in movie history.
You've got an intricately designed slo-mo throwing plates scene, an awesome cowgirl sex scene, dramatic stares into the horizons intermixed with the gorgerous cloud atlas sextet music and this wonderful monologue by Robert Frosbischer that complete encapsulates the movie's central themes of breaking boundaries and love with such intoxicating poeticism:
'Sixsmith. I climb the steps of the Scott Monument every morning and all becomes clear. Wish I could make you see this brightness. Don't worry, all is well. All is so perfectly, damnably well. I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Moments like this, I can feel your heart beating as clearly as I feel my own, and I know that separation is an illusion. My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.'
No exaggeration, I'm shedding tears just thinking about the scene.
And the movie's final sequence is just as riveting. Robert Frobischer, after the pressures of being on the run for murder, commits suicide. Somni's love interest is killed, the rebel movement is wiped out and she gets captured.
Yet to show the duality of good and evil, these scenes are juxtaposed with the most uplifting moment ever. Adam Ewing, announces he's going to leave his family because he can't bear to support them when they enable slavery, and he's going to help with the abolition movement.
The Father-in-law, Haskell Moore, pulls his son aside, lecturing him, yet Adam continues showing resistance.
Then comes my favorite exchange, and my favorite line from anywhere.
Moore says: "There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive; if you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you will exist a pariah to be spat at and beaten-at worst, to be lynched or crucified."
This line intercuts with Somni shedding a tear before finally being executed with a needle gun to the head. Absolutely heart-wrenching.
And then the scene cuts back, Moore continues: 'And for what? For what? No matter what you do it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.'
Adam replies: 'What is an ocean... but a multitude of drops'
My fucking god.... For people who have soaring ambitions to make a positive change to the world, this movie will be your bible.
Yet Cloud Atlas is incredibly underrated. It was considered a box office flop, making only 130 million dollars against a 100 million dollar production budget, very unlike The Matrix where an out-of-the-box philosophical movie gained mainstream attention. Only 68% of critics wrote a positive review of the film on rotten tomatoes (Not a bad score, but it should be 100).
And even though it's my favorite movie, I'm willing to admit Cloud Atlas has many flaws. Sections of the movie are mediocre and slow (particularly in the Hawaii story), there are huge plot holes (shootout scene between the journalist and villain is the worst capture plan ever, the old man main character gets back with a love interest from decades ago with absolutely no build up).
Yet it doesn't feel like one-quarter of the film is bad, it feels like the entire movie is great, because the beautiful moments are so breathtaking it makes you easily forgive the bad parts.
Critics and audience members who dislike the film often say it's 'bloated and pretentious', some reviewers even called it the worst film of 2012.
And I have a theory why: Cloud Atlas offends modern sensibilities, it is tremendously countercultural in a time plagued with polarisation and pessimism.
Cloud Atlas' ultimate message is: truth and love conquers all. A bold statement, that could be considered preachy or naive. I don't think so, because I sincerely believe, that truth and love conquers all
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