Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
When I started watching Cloud Atlas, I knew absolutely nothing about it. I didn't know it was three hours long. I didn't know the budget for this independent movie was $102 million. I didn't know how expansive and captivating the story would be, or how deeply I'd be invested in it by the end, or how I would come to cherish this film.
Cloud Atlas follows six interrelated stories spanning a time period of about five hundred years. If that sounds like it would be confusing, don't worry, it absolutely is. If I'm telling the entire truth here, the first time I watched it I put the subtitles on. With the addition of the subtitles, the story segment "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" went from being an unintelligible mess to the most fascinating thing I've ever seen, hands down. Once you get past the inevitable confusion of trying to put together this many parts, Cloud Atlas becomes spectacular.
These six stories take place in 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2321. They all explore elements of humanity– what it means to be human, what it means to treat others the way we do, and what our actions do to humanity as a whole.
Each story contains a part overtly connected to the others, and it's not just that the same actors play different roles in each segment. (You'll find yourself pausing, rewinding, and playing sections again– is that REALLY Halle Berry? Yes. Yes, it is.) In 1936, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) finds half a journal written in 1849 by a man named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess)…whose story just happens to be an entire segment in itself. In 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), an investigative journalist, meets Frobisher's former lover in an elevator by chance and he agrees to give her the biggest lead of her life. Rey bears a curious birthmark we see in 2144 on Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a clone who manages to escape slavery and grow more sentient with the help of an old film, "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," (Jim Broadbent) which, wouldn't you know it, was based on the true events of the 2012 storyline. By 2321, Zachry (Tom Hanks)'s primitive tribe worships Sonmi as a goddess.
The film's enormous budget wasn't wasted anywhere. Every frame in this film is 1) simply beautiful, and 2) seamlessly engaging. For the parts of the film that take place in somewhat familiar climes, you might say, Big deal, so they built a set. But it's the attention to detail in these "ordinary" settings that sets the bar for realism in the futuristic segments. There are no cardboard sliding doors or canned sound effects here. The technologically advanced world of Neo Seoul in "An Orison of Sonmi-451" seems just as real as the estate in the English countryside from "Letters from Zedelghem." This edgeless world sucks you in for the entire three hours and does not let go.
Cloud Atlas is the kind of movie that watches exactly the way the best books read: you become a kind of character yourself, living in this world watching what happens with quiet benevolence and hope, and when it's over, although conflicts have been resolved, lives have been saved, and the Earth continues to turn, a brief sadness floats over you and the thought may cross your mind that you'll never again see things the same way. After a book like that, you turn it over and open to page one again. After a movie like this, you return to the menu and hit 'play' again.