Review: Cloud Atlas weaves six tales into one beautiful image

Cloud Atlas (2012) Screenshot - cloud atlas

Cloud Atlas is a challenging film. It is nearly three hours long. It tells six different stories in six different time periods. Many of the actors in the film play multiple roles. To top it off, the film is brimming with accents from different time periods and cultures, even one completely made up. Despite all this I implore you to give Cloud Atlas a shot. It may be a challenge, but it never asks more of you than it's willing to give back. The payoff is beautiful, stunning, and unforgettable.

You can't deny the bravery of all involved in making Cloud Atlas a reality. Each of the six stories are vastly different in setting and style. The tales run the gamut from period pieces and crime dramas, to comedy and sci-fi. Once they're introduced chronologically, the film lets loose, jumping from one story to the next without warning. It may sound jarring and haphazard, but there is purpose to every cut.

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Each story seems to inform the other, sometimes chronologically, sometimes not. An off-handed joke in one era may be a haunting reality in another. As we see the same faces showing up in different time periods, we realize that these are journeys beyond the span of a single life.

Beyond the philosophical questions of how past lives could affect our future, Cloud Atlas's tapestry of interweaving tales is simply stunning to watch. One particular scene may paint the picture of Cloud Atlas as a successful film better than any other: while an African slave in 1849 races to prove himself stringing up the sails of a ship at sea, a man and woman escape a hail of gunfire in 2346. The slave dashes across the mast of the ship while the couple perform an action-ballet atop a tiny makeshift bridge. It's up to the audience to decide which scene is more perilous, though it seems like one wouldn't be nearly as powerful without the other.

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That's how most of the film plays out and it is stunning. Maybe not every scene feels necessary, but without one you get the impression the house of cards would crumble. One of the tales doesn't even really amount to anything, yet its ripples are felt in the others. The result is a film that's deeply engaging from beginning to end. Not only was I never bored during the entire runtime of Cloud Atlas, but I suspect it will stand up to multiple viewings in the way only true classics do.

There are tiny nitpicks, but I don't consider them damaging. This is a film that, in a clever way, asks the audience outright to have some patience and give its story a shot. Some people may actually need to hear that, but for my tastes it was a bit too on the nose. It gave me the impression that the creators don't trust their audience, though given the reception of the film so far that notion isn't entirely unfounded.

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Another oddity is the result of telling such a time-jumping tale within the limits of a cast of Hollywood actors and actresses. While the cast is phenomenal and the make-up department deserves a raise in most instances, Cloud Atlas pushes the limits a bit too far at times. White actors may be Asian in one scene, an Asian actress white and freckled in another. At one point even Halle Berry is white. It's surprising how often it works but there are moments where it can be distracting. Distractions are not something you need in a film as rich as this.

Cloud Atlas is so bold that its tiny stumbles feel insignificant. This is an important film that pushes the boundaries of the medium. It is unique and exciting, but at its heart there is a simple notion: "Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future."

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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