Cloud Atlas

One of the things you’ve probably been saying to yourself if you’ve watched a lot of movies from the last 30 years is ‘where are all the big movies?’ Not big in box office, budget or star power – they’ve been around as long as Hollywood and the star system.

The ‘big’ movies, where a director knows how to fill up a movie screen rather than just shoot a movie to be blown up to movie screen size.

The YouTube/digital camera/consumer-as-producer world we live in now is partly to blame. The directors taking the reigns in Hollywood today are kids who grew up with their own personal digital media right there in front of them, the size of a desktop PC or game console. The found footage genre, the shaky handycam style and countless other hallmarks of contemporary cinema have a direct link to coming of age in the media millenium.

But where are the directors who understand that a movie screen is different to that of an iPad or Xbox – not just bigger, but different. If anybody today tried something as simple but beautiful as Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia – with a camel emerging slowly from the wide, far distance in an ocean of desert – most producers or studio executives would fall asleep.

In ”Cloud Atlas”, the Wachowski Starship (wonder if anyone’s dared snigger at them when they’ve said that) and Tom Twyker come the closest to a ‘big’ movie we’ve seen since Steven Spielberg last played with aliens and dinosaurs, in the scope of the idea as well as the visuals.

Most film reviews might start with ‘it’s 1849, and…’ or ‘it’s the 2300s, and…’. This one has both, as well as it being 1936, 1973, 2012 and 2144. Before any credits have even rolled, we meet a gallery of protagonists including a 19th century lawyer and a naturalist he’s travelling through the Pacific Islands with, a musician ostracised by his sexuality who takes a job with a prickly composer, a crusading journalist digging up a story on a nuclear reactor, a publisher trying to control a gruff author, a genetically engineered waitress and a goat herder in a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world.

They’re all surrounded by other characters and at first you might not place it about every actor in the film, but they’re playing variants of the same soul through 500 years of history – often crossing genders and races – each performer playing the same character through vastly different guises (at times unrecognisably).

It’s a strong and dedicated choice to go along with the philosophy of the film, but in practical terms it doesn’t always work. Just like CGI human characters still tend to fall uncomfortably into the uncanny valley, watching Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Halle Berry or Korean actress Doona Bae wearing facial appliances to play other races looks more wrong than authentic.

The real magic (apart from the emotion and visuals) is in the narrative construction. The whole thing could have felt very episodic, but nothing about Cloud Atlas is structured enough to do so. Some characters get more time, scene lengths vary and blend into each other seamlessly and a tapestry of connective markers exist across the ages and people. In the book one of the most obvious was the comet-shaped birthmark that recurs across 500 years of rebirth, but Twyker and the Wachowskis layer in a dense gallery of motifs from people and props to ideas and inspiration.

Because it all connects together so well, it’s also easy to miss the fact that every segment of history is a different and distinct genre. All you’ll realise is that you’ve laughed, gasped, thrilled at chase scenes and maybe ever shed a few tears. There’s violence, sudden death, a sex scene, car chases, a far future battle between a flying motorbike and winged drones, advanced gadgetry, a pidgin language that devolved from English 300 years into the future, and more.

While it could have been an impenetrable thicket and a mess of way too many ideas thrown to see what sticks, the Wachowskis and Twyker – who co-wrote the script and split the directing of each segment between them – stitch it all together skillfully. Instead of simply making sense, there’s so much in it DVDs everywhere are destined to be worn out as new details are picked up on each new viewing.

Finally – and most thrillingly – Twyker and the Wachowskis employ the grand long shots coupled with lofty ideas that fill a movie screen like movies seldom do anywhere. There are flaws and some awkward directorial choices, but the ambition and scope more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Not everybody will love it, but movies that show you something you’ve never seen before are in short supply just like those movie screen sized stories, so ”Cloud Atlas” should be applauded for what it attempts.

Blu-ray Details/extras : The video presentation (1080p/AVC-encoded transfer) is vibrant, warm and welcomingly big on contrast. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is equally as pleasing.

Extras? There are seven featurettes on the film, all on a different aspect of the film’s production. While these are good, a commentary wouldn’t have gone astray.

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