Thirteen years ago, The Matrix was released, and its themes of oppression and revolution connected deeply with critics and audiences alike. The filmmakers – siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski – were similarly oppressed by its success and have spent the last decade failing to live up to it. But now their time has come. In the last several years, the spirit of revolution has come alive in America in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and Hollywood is finally taking notice. Themes of inequality and revolution are prevalent this year in The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight Rises, and Les Miserables, among others. So it is only natural that this is the year the Wachowskis release Cloud Atlas, their best film since The Matrix, and that it would revolve around the same themes that have always characterized their work.
Cloud Atlas is big, bombastic, and ambitious – and its newness will surely polarize audiences and critics alike. The plot is too enormous to describe, its themes are dense and immeasurable, and its feel…well, it feels unlike anything I have seen on film. It follows the structural template of a fairly new genre, the geopolitical drama; these films, like Syriana or Babel, have large casts of characters who, while separated by age or geography, are all seeking the same things. But Cloud Atlas expands this world by leaps and bounds – eras and eons – with a story that encapsulates dozens of characters from the past, present, and future. While its purpose is sometimes difficult to grasp and its philosophy too bluntly stated at times, the sheer power of the film is overwhelming.
The film marks an unusual challenge for its cast, as each actor plays multiple roles. Tom Hanks plays a nuclear scientist in the 1970s, a tribesman in some unnamed future, and a British thug with a cockney accent. Hugh Grant appears as a sexist CEO, a sleazy restaurant manager, and an evil warlord. Jim Broadbent is the world’s greatest composer and an aging book publisher. Halle Berry is an investigative reporter, the composer’s wife, and an ambassador from the future. You get the idea. Some of the actors even cross gender roles, and each of them portrays characters of varying age. Using actors in multiple roles to demonstrate the interconnectivity of life is a simple trick, but it works. Since each character is driven by the same things – freedom and love, namely – the actors are not required to create unique, fully-developed characters. In a way, each actor plays their multiple roles as a singular soul, who displays emotional growth with each passing era. The Buddhist notions of karma and reincarnation factor heavily into the proceedings.
It is a lot to keep track of, but one of the miracles of Cloud Atlas is that it never confuses. The film is essentially a three-hour montage, as it cuts back and forth between storylines and eras, often with overlapping dialogue and narration. It may sound like an exhausting, head-swimming experience, but it holds together quite well and is not at all boring. If the film has a failure, it’s that its philosophy never quite sticks. At its worst, it recalls the Matrix sequels, in which the films’ philosophies were often stated directly in monologue instead of being dramatized. At times, Cloud Atlas suffers from the same malady, but the stories are so strong and the drama so compelling, that this proves to be just a minor quibble.
And throughout, that spirit of revolution lifts the film from mere entertainment into what would best be termed a cathartic experience. The characters face down racism, sexism, ageism, bigotry, evil corporate schemes, and colonial domination. Even its most lighthearted sub-plot – of an elderly yet capable man who, after being wrongly imprisoned in a retirement home, plots his escape – burns with a palpable sense of purpose. Beneath its many stories beats a single soul, struggling and striving for freedom from oppression and love that is not bound by circumstance. To dig too deeply into its political subtext would be a fool’s errand. Cloud Atlas is not meant to be analyzed, dissected, or parsed for political content. It is meant to be loved, hated, fiercely defended or passionately rebuked. And if that doesn’t make you want to see it, then why go to the movies at all?
My Rating: See it in the Theater