Not since “2001: A Space Odyssey” has a film come along that’s such a marvel of moviemaking and a frustrating test of comprehension as “Cloud Atlas.”
The latest work by Andy and Lana Wachowski, the minds behind “The Matrix,” re-imagines the art of moviemaking by creating a product that finds cohesion in confusion, distinction in disorder and symmetry in asymmetry.
“Cloud Atlas” takes an omnipotent look at how actions affect past and future generations as told through six stories set in diverse time periods covering a 500-year span. Unlike the original book by David Mitchell that was generally linear in design, the Wachowski siblings, along with Tom Tykwer, have written a script that bounces forwards and backwards through time, never resting too long in one era.
It takes time, but eventually the thread emerges that connects one time period to the next. Don’t give up on the movie during the first 20 minutes.
Rather than use a standard setup to put all of the people, places and things in context, the directors toss seemingly random elements on the screen. It’s like trying to put together a puzzle in total darkness. There’s a sense that these bits go together, but it’s impossible to see their links.
Slowly, the story begins to take an emotional and cerebral shape that continues to defy traditional filmmaking. The six story lines are woven together through masterful editing. An action in the past — such as opening a door — is completed in the future. This creates stitching that binds the stories together.
Many of the actors - including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry - appear in each of the stories playing a myriad of characters. It’s not unusual to have males play female characters and vice versa.
This approach creates an interesting acting exercise, but it also a distraction. The plot begins to get eclipsed by what could eventually become a great drinking game of trying to spot each actor in each time period. This is mitigated by the actors having large roles in some time periods and smaller in others, but the approach comes close to being an annoying gimmick.
“Cloud Atlas” should get a lot of attention at Oscar time - especially for writing, editing, cinematography and makeup. But because its format defies traditional restraints, it may take several generations to fully appreciate its entertainment value.
It’s easy to admire the brilliant craftsmanship that went into making “Cloud Atlas.” It takes a lot more concentration to fully appreciate the method in what appears to be six lifetimes of madness.