3½ stars (out of four)
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
The filmmaking Wachowski siblings, Lana and Andy, changed Hollywood with their 1999 science-fiction hit “The Matrix,” but their follow-up projects have been less exciting. Although financially successful, the two “Matrix” sequels were more bombastic than anything. The Wachowski’s big-screen adaptation of “Speed Racer” was more successful artistically, but not everyone appreciates its cartoon-like presentation. Likewise, German writer-director Tom Tykwer has seen artistic ups and downs. His 1998 film, “Run Lola Run,” is a thrilling adventure deserving of the many awards it received. But later efforts, including “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” and “The International,” are more difficult to embrace.
Despite the misfires, Tykwer and the Wachowskis command attention because – even at their worst – they are ambitious. This is particularly evident in their first project as a collective: a sweeping, three-hour film adaptation of novelist David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” The film features six intertwined stories placed in settings as disparate as a 19th century sailing vessel and a tribal collective in the distant future.
“Cloud Atlas” is a film for a particular type of moviegoer: the sort who likes to carefully deconstruct a picture, laboring over the meaning of each moment. Although that may sound like work, the effort is rewarded because “Cloud Atlas” is littered with symbolism and ideas that go largely undiscovered after a single viewing. The movie not only tells six individual tales, it tells them using the same actors. Tom Hanks, for instance, portrays six characters ranging from a dishonest 19th century physician to a storyteller living in a post-apocalyptic future. Likewise, co-stars Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant play numerous roles. All viewers should enjoy the fact that these players so easily transform from one character to the next, but those who analyze the film will discover that the casting choices play a key role in the thematic development of the work. “Cloud Atlas” speculates on everything from reincarnation and human morality to the intimate connections between our past, present and future.
This is heady stuff, and the Wachowski’s and Tykwer (who are credited as co-writers and co-directors) present it beautifully. The cinematography is gorgeous throughout, and the way the filmmakers tie each of their six stories together is fascinating. None of the storytelling is linear, and the movie is constantly shifting perspectives, but it is surprisingly coherent. It is not, however, an easy watch.
To get the most out of “Cloud Atlas,” moviegoers have to be patient and attentive to even the smallest details, and the only way to fully digest the film is to watch again and again. Not everyone is willing to invest this much effort in a movie, and the fact that it occasionally drags can be discouraging. Those who warm to the material, however, will discover that “Cloud Atlas” is a rare treat. While some movies grow boring upon repeated viewing, this one gets deeper and more meaningful, illustrating just how clever the filmmakers are.
Extras on the DVD release are limited to a single making-of feature. The Blu-ray combo pack has many more behind-the-scenes shorts, including bits on the acting and the difficulty of adapting Mitchell’s book to the screen.
By Forrest Hartman