"Monty Cristo" here.
It's taken me weeks to get this out. I've started, restarted, and revised this review countless times. I have ended up deleting everything that came before and re-composing from scratch.
The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer formed the directing equivalent of a rock supergroup to make a movie out of a novel that has been considered unfilmable and unadaptable since its publication. The resulting trio, which I think of affectionately as "Wachowskykwer", have succeeded admirably in delivering a truly different evolution of what we consider cinematic vision. The simplest way to crystalize what the movie is about is to say that it is about "life, the universe and everything": not answering the meaning of it so much as driving you to ponder that question.
The six separate (though at once interconnected) stories that make up CLOUD ATLAS span different eras, genre, and stylistic tones, resulting in one of the most potent and densely packed modern cinematic experiences I've had the pleasure to digest. To define the scale and ambition of CLOUD ATLAS as "epic" feels reductive.
The stories, ideas, and themes of CLOUD ATLAS work concurrently in such a fashion that I can only define what the movie does as a form of "quantum narrative".
Roger Ebert has occasionally made mention of the "elevatory" experience that is rare in cinema, but which is at once what we all hope for each time the lights go down. CLOUD ATLAS delivers this momentary hit of a higher state of consciousness in bursts and waves throughout, such that it satisfies on first viewing, but at once drives a craving for a second and a third. It drives you to take a friend so that you can experience it rewiring their brain the way that it did yours. That first taste of the diverse spread of what universal humanity is and means is tremendously addictive. The movie has stayed in my thoughts on a constant, daily basis since I saw it at Fantastic Fest, and I'm glad that I can't shake it.
To recount characters, storylines, loglines, and individual performances feels futile. What I can offer is a stream-of consciousness braindump of the trans-existential theatre that everyone gets to see starting this weekend.
Is it wrong to hope I invented the term "trans-existential"? Whom or what may have influenced that combination of concepts in my head? When might I have heard someone use it, now unintentionally "stealing" it from them? Different than deja vu, I can hear the echo in my head of where that micro-idea came from, but I can't pin down anything approaching its origin point. It's like hearing an earworm you can't identify, and it drives you nuts for days, weeks, sometimes years or forever. CLOUD ATLAS features a piece of music in addition to other threads that make the characters in different stories and time periods make that momentary recognition of an intangible echo across existence.
CLOUD ATLAS features actors playing races, genders, and character archetypes that they never have the chance to so much as sniff at outside the theatre. Halle Berry plays a white woman wearing fancy dresses in a manor house. Doona Bae, a Korean actress who absolutely sets the screen on fire here, plays a woman in one place who has a southern/cajun type of patois, with freckles and reddish hair. Hugo Weaving plays a woman who is a true force of nature. Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent, both actors I greatly admire, are allowed the chance to play characters I can best describe in the alignment of Dungeons and Dragons: lawful good, chaotic neutral, chaotic evil, the whole gamut. They do this with not just changes in makeup, but different dialectic and vocal register choices in service of painstakingly-crafted inhabitations of personae. Hugh Grant deserves a knighthood, sainthood, or something for the panoply of evil he presents so effortlessly.
The fact that I often mistook Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, and James D'Arcy is partially a testament to the makeup, costume, and performance work all on display allowing them to truly dissolve across races and roles. As a multi-ethnic person (Chinese-Cuban/Western European American), I grew up as a young actor who was often passed over for the "white" guys for lead roles, being pushed instead into RAV types (Russians, Arabs, Villains, and "others"). This will undoubtedly sound racist (I welcome your angry, hateful comments below), but I personally took some satisfaction that the attractive young/youngish white guys all blended together to some extent. Let's call me subjectively objectively racist and call it a day. I've so often heard "they all look alike" regarding "ethnics" of various races that it's refreshing to actively see that at play with what Hollywood often considers the default setting for a hero: attractive white dudes. Whether intentional or not (likely not), this is one of the many things that make merely watching this movie a radical departure for the vast scores of passive viewers who show up for the latest action blockbuster sequel on autopilot.
CLOUD ATLAS crosses times from the colonial era to the recent past to the modern day, the near-future of 2144, and the far future that lacks a date stamp. Actors play varied types and races, sometimes linked to other characters in other story threads, whether directly or tangentially. It is about the biggest and smallest of ideas across romance, betrayal, suffering, fulfillment, and countless other microstories. Its six threads never feel like short subject features simply overlaid upon one another for fun. Instead, CLOUD ATLAS is like watching six features at the same time, with the interconnecting tissue feeding a productive progression in them all at once. As someone who studied Anthropology extensively in college, I can confidently assert that this "quantum narrative" delivers on the history and nature of humanity more profoundly than any film I've seen with so much as a similar aim. It's like PLANET OF THE APES combined with 2001, swirled with CHINATOWN and so much of Wilder, plus six or seven other things. The craft of CLOUD ATLAS from all points reveals such immaculate precision and intention that to me, it truly defines a new conception of modern epic storytelling. Much of that is owed to the source material, but it is just as much on the shoulders of "Wachowskykwer". CLOUD ATLAS defines "next level" filmmaking, and delivers ensemble cooperation and trust rarely seen outside the greatest stage acting and production in the world.
There are so many more things I'm sure I could say. I could keep writing this review for days.
Go in with an open mind or you're doing yourself an incalculable disservice.