Epic is an easy word to toss around these days. That meal was epic. That skater's face plant was epic. That drum solo was epic. Overuse has softened the actual meaning of the word. Epic is specifically descriptive of length of a work, or its scope. Something momentous and very long, or involving an unusual number of memorable characters in extreme circumstances.
Cloud Atlas is epic.
At its surface the film is composed of six stories, each decades appart, over the period between the 19th and 24th centuries. A seafaring tale of betrayal and brotherhood, an artist's tortured work and forbidden love, a reporters deadly investigation, a comedy of errors in an English old-folks home, a doomed radical movement in a dystopian future, and a quest into the past on a dying earth. Any one would be a reasonable tale, but together they blend... well everything conceivable... into a much larger tale. An epic.
Cloud Atlas was first published in 2004 and won several prestigious literary awards. The book told the first halves of each tale in turn, and then spiraled back through the stories to resolve them. It was considered an unfilmable work, which is remarkable given what the film's directors decided to do in their telling.
The frenetic blending of the six tales is what most viewers will be impressed with, or perhaps confused by at first. A scene from a fireside in the far future seamlessly transitions to a blindingly white beach five hundred years earlier. A gunfight in the 1960's moves forward to a car chase in modern England. Rarely do we spend more than five minutes in one storyline before sliding into another. It can be dizzying, the viewer is given little time to digest the reveal from a previous scene before diving into a new scene in a different story. It's somewhat reminiscent of 2001's thriller Memento, but much kinder to the viewer and less confusing as all stories here move strictly forward in their telling.
When we stop being confused by storylines jumping about, we start seeing the connections. Characters in the future are often encountering stories from the past by way of a wide variety of artifacts left apparently specifically for them to discover. Oh, there's also a repeating birthmark that shows up on various characters through the years, but that's almost ignorable; it contributes little to complete any connection.
It's the actions and words from the past that are inspirational or instructional to the present characters. All is connected, and often on several levels. Recognizing these connections as they are created and again when rediscovered is one of the real fascinating joys of Cloud Atlas.
Which of course leads to one of the more obvious points in the production; the actors and their roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and others each act as an ensemble cast, taking on one or more roles in each of the individual stories.
It's not a simple story of reincarnation, but more an act of production enabled by amazing makeup and special effects that is guaranteed to surprise you multiple times when the final credits roll. Hanks and Berry especially take focal roles in most of their stories, and not always as heroes, but turning in terrific performances. This is certainly a film where single actors may score nominations for both Actor and Supporting Actor categories.
As a film, Cloud Atlas is a visual wonder. From its most dank to most sparkling, it delivers fistfuls. The Wachowskis can't make a film without at least a couple super-human martial arts displays integrated among fantastic sets, and they don't disappoint here. The recreation of the 1980's could be lost on many, but finds a home here along with the gentle and not-so-gentle societies of the 1850's. There's an ecological cautionary tale that spins out over the latter tales, not essential, but hopefully not forgotten by the audience.
Criticisms of the film are easily identified, but thankfully easily dismissed as well. Aside from the challenge of keeping where you are in the plots straight, there's some particularly challenging future-dialogue as difficult as any in Clockwork Orange or Jersey Shore. Sure, even after you start to get comfortable in on-the-fly translation, you'll hit some new phrasing that simply bounces off your comprehension. But relax - very little of it is actually necessary, the actors and their situations communicate and fill in the essence of what's going on. It's likely that multiple viewings will make all clear, but like a trip to France there's plenty to understand without understanding everything.
Similarly, the near three hour length of the film might be challenging for some, particularly their bladders. But it is epic, and I wouldn't look to cut much of anything in the name of making it shorter. Never dragging, the three hours flew by, at least for me. Honestly, I'm looking forward to a director's cut or at least some deleted scenes in the inevitable disc release.
Finally, there's no pat answer as to what this melange of storytelling is all about, and of course some people would still like to pull back the curtain on any film and extract an explaining wizard to hand it all to them on a plate. There's no such wizard here. Hopefully Cloud Atlas will find an audience willing to go along for the ride, to draw out their own conclusions and, likely after multiple viewings, be delighted by all the richness imbedded in the tale. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing it again soon.