If you are not prepared to sit for nearly three hours, follow a complex plot, and ponder the effects of past, present and future each person has, then Cloud Atlas is not for you. One of the multitude of characters that Tom Hanks plays warns us in the opening sequence that this series of unrelated events will eventually make sense, but we must be careful and prepared to go along for the ride to find the 'true-true.'
I have not read the book by David Mitchell which was published in 2004 so I can not speak to the accuracy of the movie's presentation of the work, but if the movie is only half of what the book is, then it must be a great read but is most likely a bit challenging. The more I think about the movie, however, the better I like it.
The movie, produced and written and directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, stars an ensemble cast of gifted actors who all play a multitude of roles. Stick around for the credits so you can see the actors in makeup for their various roles. The makeup is astounding in that it allows each actor to play these roles and at the same time it leaves enough of the actor visible that the viewer can tell who it is.
The cast includes not only Oscar award winners, but also some very talented character and young performers. They really do operate as an ensemble. I suppose if you have to pick a lead actor, it might be Tom Hanks who starts the film as a sort of storyteller character or perhaps is is Halle Berry who leads us to how so much is joined or perhaps it is Jim Broadbent who writes a book that leads to the movie that becomes the teacher of...or perhaps it is Ben Whishaw who composed the "Cloud Atlas Sixtet" the musical piece that ....or perhaps it Hugo Weaving the perennial villain, Hugh Grant the twisted business man, or Xun Zhou who leads the way... or is it Doona Bae or David Keith or James D'Arcy or Susan Sarandon ..or...or (sorry don't want to give away too much).
You see Cloud Atlas is a story of change and redemption. A story that tells everything is connected and symbolized as several of the characters become a single soul connected through time and gaining enlightenment and redemption, all symbolized by the birthmark of a comet. Each generation fights to overcome some form of oppression but as the character of Adam Ewing puts it in what seems to be a theme line to his father-in-law, Hakell Moore in the 1849 timeline when he announces he intends to fight slavery:
"No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop of water in a limitless ocean," says Haskell.
"What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?" replies Adam.
Include into this that variations of these connections and this theme are repeated through out the film along with homages and foreshadowing using everything from Soylent Green to the work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and we have more than a complicated special effects movie.
We have Cloud Atlas which is epic storytelling . filled with drama, love, humor, action sequences that are the Wachowski trade mark, and grand sets. It is no small task for an actor to overcome such a broad expanse and then have to develop a multitude of characters. Like all good films, it is not the makeup or the costume or stunning effects it is about character and clear storytelling. Special effects movies too often become about the effects and forget that it is story and actors who drive the movie. The rest are just the condiments for the movie. It is clear that in Cloud Atlas, directors, actors and writers remembered this thought but you still need to be prepared to think this movie through. A friend who taught me much of what I know about directing told me once that you know a piece is good if you are discussing more than how bad it was after you've seen it and are still thinking about it hours later. We really are a drop in a multitude of drops.