Sometimes I'm reminded of why I like to watch new movies at random. When I was doing research for my rant against the pathetic state of science fiction films, Stop Me if This Movie Premise Sounds Familiar, I ran across a mention of a Tom Hanks film from last year called Cloud Atlas. Deliberately avoiding any foreknowledge of its content or merit, I watched what turned out to be three hours of steadily increasing exaltation I hadn't at all expected and still don't quite know how to explain. All I can say is that it reaches something amazing and fundamental, and I've never seen anything like it before.
Not having read the book it's based on, I can only speculate as to what level of vision must have been involved for a mere movie adaptation to be that evocative of such unorthodox and abstract emotions. Basically, Cloud Atlas is spoken in the language of truth, which is very rare for a movie - and even rarer for a science fiction movie. If I were to take a stab at reducing massive spiritual complexities into a high-concept pitch, think Contact if it had been made by someone a lot smarter than Robert Zemeckis.
The bizarre thing is, the movie had all the elements of a giant Failgasm: Tom Hanks playing multiple costume-and-makeup roles in six interwoven time periods, two of them in the far future - one and three centuries from now, respectively. Also present are Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, and Halle Barry, which on its face just seems like a cacophanous mishmash for the sake of the credits. The only confidence-inspiring signals up front came from the relatively small roles played by Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent, but an ensemble cast can just as easily breed catastrophe.
For quite a while it seems to be going nowhere in particular, but regularly hopscotches back and forth between the 19th, early 20th, late 20th, early 21st, mid-22nd, and early 24th centuries. Most of the way it doesn't even seem like one film despite the small elements connecting the stories - a book written by or about one of the earlier characters being read by one of the later ones, or that sort of thing. It seems like six totally unrelated people's lives, despite the recurrence of actors: A young man entering his father-in-law's slave trade, an overlooked composer's personal struggles, an investigative journalist looking into a seedy nuclear power company, a hapless schmuck going through comedic struggles with bizarre characters, a genetically-engineered slave working for an Asian fast food chain, and a primitive villager visited by a high-tech foreigner.
And it's a good thing that such a radical approach was taken right off the bat to show how unconventional the film is, because the individual stories at first all seem like cliches: The trite Tom Hanks history picture, the pretentious British artsy-fartsy show, the Erin Brockovich-style trivialization of complex struggles, the tedious "quirky" comedy that looks poised to be not funny at all, the comic book-inspired action sci-fi movie with all the usual dystopian tropes, and then of course the post-apocalypse tribesmen. It could have sucked. By all rights it should have sucked. But it didn't. It sucked less and less the more I watched.
Because it was written as if not even talking to the viewer, but rather simply transmitting something from another party altogether - and that's what I mean by the "language of truth." The narrative is completely unconcerned with whether or not the viewer is happy with what's going on, and only interested in evolving itself. What at times had become despicably trite or cliched ultimately soars to such revelatory heights that you have no idea where they came from, and yet they seem utterly natural nonetheless. Horrors are neither shied from, nor masochistically wallowed in, nor self-righteously paraded for the sake of contrived outrage, just shown plainly, and that makes the results exquisitely affecting.
By the end of the movie, the trite cliches have woven together into this magnificent, unsuspected whole that means something profoundly real and preciously rare, yet utterly familiar. It becomes a kind of narratively illustrated version of Terrence Malik's The Tree of Life focusing in on the human side rather than being totally cosmic. I'm not entirely comfortable with this kind of humbly mystical science fiction - I've always more preferred the confident, To Boldly Go version of the genre, but my discomfort wasn't a bad thing. This movie made me feel something exalted while also making me feel awareness of the fragility of human existence. It's rare that a movie these days embodies anything, let alone such holistic understandings.
While there are plenty of superficial changes I would have made to the film - gimmicks I would have avoided, different approaches I would have taken - I can't argue with the results. So often Hollywood puts together a bunch of great parts and out of them creates total crap, but somehow these people wove six threads of hackneyed bullshit into a masterpiece about human enlightenment that left me disturbed and awakened. So I want to strongly recommend that people who haven't seen it do so - especially those who are sick of what Hollywood puts out these days in every genre. The fact is Hollywood didn't want this movie to be made, but reportedly the cast and crew (Tom Hanks in particular) pushed it through, and I give him enormous credit for that - and will thus forgive a scene where he hams it up as a British gangster trying to be Bob Hoskins.
The first hour will bore you; the second hour will alternately interest and annoy you with genre cliches interspersed with truly original elements; but the final third of the movie will increasingly make you realize that Something Important Is Happening Here. Not even the people making the film seemed to be really aware of what they were doing, and yet somehow that increases the impact of what finally comes out of it - they're discovering it as you are. Among so many other things, it illustrates the fundamentally negative, absent nature of evil - the way that evil things dissipate over time and yet persist to poison the present in the shadows and dim recesses. Also the nature of good not as a rejection of evil - which would be a meaningless double-negative - but as acting from a present awareness of life, and expressing that life truthfully.
When you've got a spare three hours and an extra dollop of patience, I highly recommend watching this movie. Don't read reviews or synopses first - do as little as you possibly can to have preconceptions about it. Just go into it expecting nothing in particular and let it happen.
9:57 AM PT: Another high-concept way I'd describe Cloud Atlas: The Coen Brothers meet Buddhism.