“Cloud Atlas”: A Must-See Fever Dream

There are a lot of things being said about Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s film adaptation of Cloud Atlas: it’s the film adaptation of an unfilmable novel; it’s brilliant and visionary; it’s a muddy mess; it means well, but it’s too big for its britches.

All of these things are, to some extent, true. The film – which uses a core cast of actors to tell a half-dozen wildly different tales spanning genres and centuries – is staggeringly ambitious. It is also wildly uneven, the warp and weft of the various interweaving plot threads being at times gripping, at others touching, and at others cold-sweat clunky to the point where you fear it might unravel completely.

Halle Berry and Keith David

Not particularly surprising, given the sprawl that the three filmmakers have chosen to tackle: David Mitchell’s source novel (which he himself considered “unfilmable”) is a massive, meta feverdream that attempts to encapsulate humanity’s overarching struggle for survival and advancement through a selection of carefully curated and vastly different tales.

One tells the story of an American plantation owner stricken with a tropical parasite who befriends a stowaway slave on a long and arduous boat trip back from New Zealand in the 1850s. Another tells the story of a young composer who offers his services to a reclusive genius, only to find his own artistic voice. A thrilling 1970’s set espionage mystery, a contemporary British caper about an escape from an old folks’ home, a futuristic parable about a sentient clone who becomes the figurehead for a revolution and a post-apocalyptic tale of tribal loyalties round out the array.

Ben Whishaw

The Wachowskis and Tykwer – each of whom has tackled “big ideas” like fate, free will and revolution (the former in The Matrix Trilogy and V for Vendetta, the latter in films like Run Lola Run and Heaven) – present these vastly different tales as six variations on a theme (perhaps the young composer’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet”?), choosing to line up the acts and beats of each storyline accordingly and intercut rapidly amongst them.

The result is dizzying, but effective – and aided by the fact that they’ve also opted to employ a small central company in all of the tales, each actor playing different roles spanning a number of ages, races, and genders.

Halle Berry

So, yes – Halle Berry plays a white woman and an Asian man (among many other characters), Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy both play Koreans, Doona Bae plays a Latina, a white woman and an Asian man, and Hugo Weaving plays a British woman. First off, it’s a testament to the makeup department that this doesn’t blow up in their latex-enhanced faces (I’m having horrible flashbacks to the old-age makeup in J. Edgar) – while some of the race- and gender-switched characters are undeniably odd looking, they are all fascinating in their own way. At times it’s difficult to identify the actor within the character, which is of course partly the point.

The point. That’s the problem that many people will have in processing Cloud Atlas. Because, unlike most $100 million, genre-smashing epics, the movie does have one. In fact, the point of Cloud Atlas is so essential to understanding the film that it almost supercedes the film itself: this is not a movie, it is a manifesto. A gonzo, breathtaking, deeply humane declaration of the belief that all people – regardless of class, race, gender, age, sexuality, and more – are deserving of the same level of respect. It’s the ultimate “outsider” film. It’s a film that celebrates the unrepresented and the subordinated, that hails the bold and revolutionary, that commends the whistleblower and the dissenter who refuse to comply with a majority in the wrong. It is a film that stresses the heroism of both he or she that chooses to help pull someone else up, and he or she who chooses to step up on his or her own.

David Gyasi

In my opinion, this kind of film – a mainstream film that genuinely celebrates diversity and that inspires its audience to take a stand against a corrupt or oppressive status quo – is essential to our progress as a culture and a species. Over the decades these stories are crushingly few and far between, and oddly enough have appeared in the science fiction genre more commonly – and more effectively – than almost any other. Think Star Trek, which boldly went where no man had gone before by envisioning a future where gender and race were not used to value one’s worth. Or A.I., which had the audacity to claim that what makes us human is our universal need to be loved. More recently, Joe Cornish’s brilliant Attack the Block – which told the story of a black London youth’s progression from street thug to hero in the guise of an alien invasion lark – took similarly bold steps toward leveling the playing field by celebrating those among us whose stories are often left ontold, and by daring to suggest that they might be our future.

Are these films perfect? No. They’re actually kind of ridiculous, what with all the aliens and goofy prosthetics and far-out visualizations of the future. But that’s just set dressing. The ideas underneath are what matter, and the force and passion with which these messages are expressed. Fortunately, despite being massively ambitious and boasting lofty ideals, Cloud Atlas is also genuinely entertaining and manages to nimbly genre-hop while striking the appropriate tone of each. The brilliance of the approach – telling a single story through six distinct genres and casts of characters – is that it meets us where we already live. Times six. While more earnest approaches to such heady material as the ongoing human struggle may be just as worthwhile, they might not be as direct or resounding (or reach nearly as many eyes). As much as I enjoyed Tree of Life, for example, its emotional impact was hazier. If that film was a tone poem, this one is a fist-pumping rock anthem.

James D’Arcy

With its central message of empowerment, Cloud Atlas falls in with other idealistic thought pieces in many ways – but in one very important sense it is truly revolutionary. At the core of Cloud Atlas lies a beautiful, believable, and deeply moving love story. And that love story is between two men.

The tale of young composer Robert Frobisher (Brideshead Revisited’s Ben Whishaw) and his ego joust with his reclusive mentor is grounded by his correspondence with Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), his closest friend and lover. When we first meet the two men in the opening minutes of the film they are in bed together – and when the hotel manager comes knocking with Robert’s bill and he has to make a fast exit, they share a kiss that is as sweet as it is unapologetic. In the opening minutes of a $100 million sci-fi film.

D’Arcy and Whishaw

Of course, as the film as a whole is about humanity’s oft-repeated mistakes, not everything remains rosy for two men in love in the 1930’s. But the very experience of sitting in a theater watching a huge, massively anticipated film that features several heroic gay characters and doesn’t shy away from their love was for me its own kind of revolution. I was also hugely impressed by the performance(s) of D’Arcy, whom until this point I hadn’t given much thought (most notably in Madonna’s historical drama W.E., where pretty much everyone was wasted). Here he brings enormous gravity to each of his characters, particularly the smitten Sixsmith, and he performs the film’s most emotional scene beautifully.

The rest of the cast also rises to the various challenges admirably. Halle Berry gives several of her best performances in years, and Tom Hanks does a decent job of tackling a half-dozen characters (even if, in the end, he and Jim Broadbent are perhaps the least adept at disappearing in their roles). Hugo Weaving yet again stands in as the Wachowski’s go-to creeper (he’s the only actor to essentially play the same character in every tale – that character being pure evil), and familiar faces (beneath unfamiliar faces) like Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant (hilarious in several of his jerkwad parts) and Keith David round out the cast nicely.

Could some of Cloud Atlas’s near-three-hour running time have been cut? Probably. Might a few of the more tangential storylines been trimmed? Sure. But the filmmakers clearly approached this project with the feeling that more is more: in the same way that a single poppy, though beautiful and perfect in its own right, cannot compare to the overwhelming beauty of an entire field, the telling of the same story in six different ways amplifies its nuances. I was never bored, and for the most part I was throroughly engaged, be it in a Streets of San Francisco-style car chase and shootout, a campy Great Escape-style breakout staged by pensioners, or a futuristic nightmare where all of society willingly lives within a CGI fantasy. Themes of cannibalism (both pysical and intellectual) and corporate greed are balanced by moments of healing, generosity, and kindness.

Like the passengers on Adam Ewing’s ship home, the sprawling cast of characters constantly struggles to find its footing as the deck pitches beneath them. Some do better than others, but each tale brims with hope for a kinder present and a better future. Whether you love Cloud Atlas or hate it (I suspect most viewers will land somewhere between “frustrated” and “impressed”), I think there are far worse ways to spend your three hours than considering the same.

Cloud Atlas opens everywhere Friday.

Writer-filmmaker Brian Juergens launched CampBlood.org, the world's first website devoted to horror films from a gay perspective, in 2003.