Lets be clear, despite all the hype and hyperbole surrounding Cloud Atlas, the actual story has been told before. The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick and The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky have both explored similar themes of human existence, rebirth and destiny. But the essential difference is that 'Life and 'Fountain were aimed at the art-house, indie-film crowd whereas 'Atlas was adapted from David Mitchell's novel with the intent of appealing to the mainstream movie audience. The film has resonated with critics because it attempts to inject thought-provoking storytelling and fully formed characters into a big sci-fi, action adventure spectacle. To put it succinctly, it's the antithesis to the Michael Bay approach. However, telling six distinctly different stories is simply too tall of a task for Atlas and by different stories, I'm not just referring to the setting and era of each tale, there's six different typologies on display which are tied together to varying degrees. Yet, the cohesiveness that the film advertises falls a bit flat ultimately as there's simply too much to keep track off as we move through different eras, different lives and different genres.
There's six stories being told in Cloud Atlas--- the earliest story takes place in 1849 on a sea voyage undertaken by Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) and runaway slave Autua (David Gyasi); the next chronological story follows con artist and musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) and his lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) in 1936 Europe; journalist Luisa Ray (Halle Berry) who attempts to uncover a dangerous plot concerning a nuclear power plant in 1973San Francisco; the black comedy of Timohty Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) who undergoes a one hilarious misfortune after another in present day 2012; the captivating tale of fabricant Sonmi~451(Doona Bae) in 2144 Seoul; and Zachry's (Tom Hanks) tale of survival in a far distant dystopian future where the polar ice caps have flooded the world and he survives on an island inhabited by cannibals. The 1849 tale is a historical fiction period piece, the 1936 tale is a love story, the 1973 tale is a psychological thriller, the 2012 story is a comedy, the 2144 is a sci-fi action piece and the post-apocalyptic tale is pure science fiction fantasy. What ties such disparate stories together is the fact that the majority of the main cast appears in every tale, alternating between supporting and major roles in the life of the protagonist of that particular story. What the film implies is that we are destined to play important roles within a specific circle of people and that we stay true to the core of who we are regardless of the era or surrounding culture (except for one character) . Strengthening this theme is the incredible editing job done by Alexander Berner who is most likely 'destined' for an Oscar win. However, while the physical shift between stories is masterfully done, it's rather difficult to find the thematic thread that links each story. Some tales work very well together like the exploits in futuristic Seoul and the action depicted in the dystopian future however, it's a bit difficult to identify how those stories relate to the 1849 and 1936 period pieces. Overall, it feels like you're watching six short stories that are all good but don't necessarily connect with one another, weakening Cloud Atlas' central theme of interconnected lives .
In terms of SFX, the most exciting story by a fairly wide margin is the 2144 Neo Seoul story. Watching Bae and Sturgess' Hae-Joo Chang battle to free fabricants from an inhumane and incredibly oppressive existence will leave you longing for the Wachowskis to take another stab at sci-fi again. Futuristic Seoul is fabulously rendered on screen and the sci-fi battles are some of the best action scenes you'll see all year. Incidentally, it should be noted that the Wachowskis directed the Neo-Seoul story along with the post-apocalyptic future and Europe period piece while Tykwer directed the 1849, 1973 and 2012 stories. That decision haunts Atlas as making the connection between each directing camps stories is where the film is at its weakest. Also, undermining Atlas is the inconsistent makeup in the film. Sometimes the makeup is so good you'll have trouble identifying the actor underneath it while other instances are so bad you'll be completely taken out of the film.Where the makeup is inconsistent, the cinematography is anything but, the longshots are breathtaking and will give the film another Oscar contender. Frank Griebe and John Toll did a fabulous job as the camerawork is instrumental in rapidly building the world of each individual story.
Cloud Atlas should indeed be applauded for what it seeks to accomplish but it's ultimately undone by the straightforward nature of each tales' narrative. The film only partially combines the sensibilities of indie-film storytelling and the spectacle and exhilaration of big blockbuster sci-fi action making for an uneven film experience.
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