Cloud Atlas Review: A Bold, Barmy Epic

rating: 3.5

Andy and Lana Wachowski's latest, a collaboration with Tom Tywker (Run Lola Run, The International), proves to be a jaw-droppingly ambitious effort; a lavish, mental, messy and moving event-film-cum-tone-poem that rewards patient, open-minded viewers, and is unquestionably the Matrix directors' best work in about a decade. The tacitly-intersecting stories of this sprawling tableau - which girds on earnest philosophical notions like closing doors opening others, and metaphorical tear-drops creating ripples in the sea - will be readily dismissed as twaddle by many, and for sure, a lot of it is likely best described as "high-nonsense", but Cloud Atlas is also brimming with inventive craft, from the chameleonic performances of the impressive cast, to the often staggering level of technical proficiency. Better a film felt than one endlessly picked apart - and surely one which will open up during multiple viewings - it has much in common with Darren Aronofsky's divisive The Fountain. Indeed, it is a story about love's permanence and ability to bind our planet (and beyond), but is also a visual spectacle quite unlike anything else; opulent and sprawling as a period piece, while claustrophobic and deliriously frenetic during its futuristic, Neo Seoul excursion. Quite unexpectedly for a film of its kind, Cloud Atlas almost instantly defies the expectation of a high-budget fantasy, throwing gratuitous violence, swearing and sex into the mix, a bold move that will likely enhance its crossover appeal with those over-indulged on extravagant but sexless sweeping operas. This is a refreshingly adult outing, making the best of its raw moments to heighten the emotional intensity of its challenging composition. However, like most any film trading in interconnected stories - let alone ones directed by two distinctive artistic voices - Cloud Atlas is bound to be uneven to a point, with several stories floating to the top while others don't quite measure up. The best of show are easily Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent's musical partnership, the exhilarating sci-fi segment, and the various interactions of Halle Berry and Tom Hanks' "incarnations" which, as one interpretation might have it, sees their souls meeting again and again throughout time. One key issue with the film, however - a near-unavoidable inevitability no less - is the strict editing in order to keep things tight at an already exhausting 171 minutes. Cutting between scenes directed by the Wachowski's and those by Tykwer is jarring on occasion, for each time the sci-fi component appears to gear up for a thrilling hover-chase, it is stifled and compartmentalised by cutting to the more sedate drama of centuries past. Still, it's a minor complaint in a film that will win its fair share of technical plaudits above all else, much more so than the acting - which nevertheless deserves its due - and the writing or direction. Though the visual artistry makes those futuristic scenes sparkle in particular, it's the beguilingly transformative make-up effects that will impress most. As various actors step into the shoes of other genders, races and species, the playful quality of trying to discern who is who becomes undeniable (and a mid-credits reveal will likely show you a few you didn't notice). Granted, one prosthetic element used to give Hugh Grant the likeness of an old codger feels a little phoney, yet the other efforts on the whole fortunately do not encroach upon their actors' ability to emote and express. Needless to say, an Academy Award nomination in this category at this stage feels extremely likely, and a win would not seem out of the question either. Meanwhile, the film score - composed by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tykwer himself - drives the simple but effective bombast and emotion home; the stand-out leitmotif, put to wonderful use at the thrilling climax, is especially affecting. And while we might not quite understand every minute detail - especially those unfamiliar with David Mitchell's source material - the hypnotic pull of the narrative, unabashedly sentimental, is a winner all the same. Though not likely to be a force majeure on the awards circuit this year, the meticulous below-the-line craft will keep its profile high in the coming months. Cloud Atlas is released in the US on October 26th, and in the UK on February 22nd, 2013.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.