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Although I try my best to stay on top of all the current movie buzz, I somehow managed to evade the hype around Cloud Atlas entirely. Well, I didn't evade it, exactly. Despite hearing some wonderful things from friends, I just never got around to reading David Mitchell's novel. I almost watched the 6 minute trailer that Universal unveiled months before the film's release, but ultimately decided against it, fearing it would spoil more than entice. I never read any reviews - also unusual for this creature of habit - nor did I dip into the pools of discussion and debate. As a result, Cloud Atlas never even blipped on my radar, but there was something about it that managed to pique my interest nevertheless. Landing itself on numerous best and worst of 2012 lists, it's proven to be a highly polarizing film. I've always been attracted to divisive flicks, because love 'em or hate 'em, they tend to be the most memorable, and regardless of how you feel about Cloud Atlas after all is said and done, I doubt anyone would deny it's precisely that.
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Throughout the entirety of its runtime, Cloud Atlas weaves us through six stories, each of which take place in their own unique era between the 19th and 23rd centuries. No need to bore you with the minor details, because it's what these tales have in common that make all the difference. In short, they represent certain points in time when personal and political interests have shackled the world in ugliness. At first, these shackles are literally seen on slaves as they're cuffed and whipped to the point of subservience. Such bindings are also represented metaphorically as the rich and powerful attempt to stifle specific subclasses. As time marches on, the defining characteristics of these subclasses can change for a variety of reasons - they could stem from something as petty as color and money, or even be the byproduct of humanity playing God - but over the ages, the struggle inherent in these systems do not. The 'big picture' here is that people are controlled and manipulated throughout their entire lives, both individually and collectively, and we meet each of our protagonists just as they're about to awaken from the reality imposed on them by their so-called superiors.
I know it sounds like a fairly simple premise, and perhaps it would be if Cloud Atlas had been a typical film. No, a typical film provides us with a beginning, a middle, and an end... but Cloud Atlas is far from conventional. Imagine six short films have been edited together with only a few minutes of each being shown at a time, and you've got a pretty good handle on what to expect from the movie. I'll be honest with you - At first, this particular method of storytelling caught me off guard, and the film's opening sequence left me somewhat disoriented as a result. Once I realized what was going on, I actually thought it was a clever way for them to connect such an epic span of time, but it wasn't long before I felt the novelty beginning to wear off. Don't get me wrong, the filmmakers trimmed things up with surgical precision, and as a result, Cloud Atlas flowed like a masterful symphony. The real problem with this 'mosaic' editing style, is that the filmmakers were unwilling to show any of their cards until very late in the game. I'm a big fan of the slow burn, but once I reached the halfway mark, I was seriously concerned that the payoff wouldn't even be worth it. Despite certain visual cues - and since there's so much going on, it's incredibly hard to stop and think about them all - I kept wondering when things would begin to make some sort of sense. Still, I kept watching to see how Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis would bring it all together.
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But fortunately, that's just about the time cues from earlier in the film begin to recur, allowing us to finally process the film's central themes. They proceed to unravel until the final scene, and it's only then we get the scope of the message that was being conveyed. I didn't think it was possible, but by the time the end credits rolled, my opinion of the film had done a complete 180. I'll admit I was concerned that the Wachowskis involvement would have unnecessarily bloated the film, or at the very least, that they would focus on the visual aesthetics more than anything else. Well, although the CGI and cinematography are both astounding, they actually helped to deliver a slice of cinema that's thought provoking above all else.
For me, the film succeeds because it uses grand circumstances to tap into an antagonistic idea that we can all relate to - Division. Much like the plot devices in Cloud Atlas, our world is always under the threat of being controlled by fear - Don't do this, it's against the law. Don't write or say that, it's against certain 'interests'. Don't think about this, it's bound to lead to trouble. So, what's the understanding then? Yep, that we're all sort of living in an inescapable rat race... and what do we do about it? If most of you are being honest, nothing at all. We get up, go to work, fall in line, go home, count our nickels, and go to bed so we can do it all over again the very next day... and why? Because who would dare to break the mold on their own? That's why. We're just one person amongst a planet of billions... but Cloud Atlas proposes that our societal bounds aren't the be all and end all. As human beings, we are gifted with the prospect of mapping our own destiny, to make our own choices. Furthermore, the film reinforces the idea that a single person can create the ripple responsible for starting a revolution that could change the world forever. All it could take is the exercise of your free will, and/or a substantial act of kindness... you just never know. For a film that presents such an ugly side of our civilization as a whole, it sure does have a positive outlook on the human condition, and that's a quality that's remarkably refreshing amidst all the doom and gloom we're constantly exposed to. So, was the payoff worth it? For me, most definitely. This is truly one of those films that you can't fully appreciate until you've seen the entire thing, and now that I've had a chance to think about everything as was presented, I want to see it again with my new pair of knowledge specs on.
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But let me be clear - Cloud Atlas is most definitely not for everyone. The film only succeeded for me because I was incredibly patient with it (again, fan of the slow burn over here). There's a reason why this film appeared on numerous best and worst of lists in 2012. Considering the incredibly ambitious method of storytelling, you can definitely feel every minute of the film's runtime. For me, this was a good thing - Despite being weary of where things were headed in the first half, I can honestly say I was never bored. For others however, this could amount to being the longest three hours of their lives. Another thing that works against the film at times, is its attempt to provide an 'evolved' futuristic language. It's can honestly be extremely painful to listen to, because it ironically sounds devolved. Most of it is indistinguishable from drunken gibberish, but key words do manage to slip through enough for us to get the gist of what's going on. Fortunately, this is only applicable to one of the six stories. Last but certainly not least, the final act is going to fall a little flat for more than a few. Because the point of this film is to deliver a specific message about the human condition, the finale isn't some contrived action powerhouse. It's far quieter than that, but it fits the film for what it needed to accomplish.
So, after blowing all this hot air, it really comes down to this - Everyone should see Cloud Atlas at least once. Those who love it will likely do so because they're intrigued by the many intricate layers left to uncover, and fortunately for them, this will warrant many repeat viewings in the future. Those who hate it will probably demand their time and money back, if not hitting internet message boards aplenty, ranting and raving about why this was one of the worst films they've ever had the displeasure of seeing. To the latter group, I merely say 'that's fine'. Either you're down with the Cloud or you're not, and I'm not foolish enough to think that I can change your mind. That being said, this is partly why I find cinema to be so important - Even if a film doesn't manage to tickle you the right way, I still consider it a winner if it forces you to participate in discussions and engage in thoughtful debates.
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Even if you didn't find Cloud Atlas to be spellbinding, you very well may find its 1080p, AVC encoded transfer to be (2.40:1). For starters, detailing is amongst the best I've seen in quite some time. There are plenty of shots in the film that took my breath away with lifelike skin texturing accentuated by beaded sweat, landscapes that feature sand or forestation, not to mention the makeup or special effects. If you're looking for a title that practically looks as if you're peeking through a window, then this is it. Such depth and dimensionality wouldn't have been possible without impeccable contrast and black levels, and I assure you they won't disappoint. Colors are consistently bold, and although they practically beg to leap off the screen, they retain a lifelike quality throughout. There are no signs of digital tampering, be it digital noise reduction or otherwise, but certain objects in a few shots do present some very minor haloing. Other than that, there's no banding or digital artifacts to speak of. Simply put, this transfer is a winner.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is no slouch, either. Much of the film is dialogue driven, so it's no surprise that spoken word, despite being intentionally indecipherable at times, is consistently prioritized, and always reflective of the particular environment our protagonists are in. But, from time to time, things do kick into high gear, and in these instances the surrounds are utilized to full effect, providing the surround stage with pinpoint accuracy. The LFE gets a workout from time to time as well, yet never feels unnecessarily bombastic just for the sake of being so. When things quiet down, which they often do, environmental ambience is always there to draw us further into the experience the filmmakers aimed to provide. The score as written is absolutely superb, but, and this is my only nitpicky complaint, i would have enjoyed it if it had been given a louder presence.
For a film that really engages the mind as well as your emotions, Cloud Atlas would have been a prime candidate for some form of Maximum Movie Mode, or at the very least, a commentary from the filmmakers. What we have instead are seven Focus Point featurettes which clock in at around 55 minutes in length. They're definitely worth watching if you enjoyed what the film had to offer, but it would have been nice if the studio covered all the bases on this one. Perhaps the filmmakers didn't want to participate in a commentary, ensuring that people would have little choice but to think about the many intricacies buried within. That's all well and good if that was the intent (and I have no idea if it was or wasn't), but this still feels like a missed opportunity.
-A Film Like No Other - This featurette mainly focuses on... well, advertising the film. Cast and crew discuss the film excitedly, hoping we'll appreciate their enthusiasm and dedication in bringing this to the big screen.
-Everything Is Connected - A brief overview of how the stories/themes and characters are all connected throughout the film.
-The Impossible Adaptation - How were the filmmakers able to take such difficult source material and transform it into something an audience can enjoy? This featurette provides a decent idea about their methodology, but I would have loved to see/hear something more in depth on this particular subject.
-The Essence of Acting - The main cast are charged with playing multiple roles throughout each of the six storylines, and here they discuss the challenge of having to wear so many different hats throughout production.
-Spaceships, Slaves and Sextets - The cast and filmmakers discuss the 'six simultaneous stories' approach.
-The Bold Science Fiction of Cloud Atlas - This featurette discusses how much attention to detail was paid in regards to the language and culture of each era.
-Eternal Recurrence - Love, Life and Longing in Cloud Atlas - Cast and filmmakers discuss the themes of fate and connectedness in the film.
Also included is a DVD of the film, as well as an Ultraviolet code so you can watch it on the go.
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Plenty of people have pointed to The Great Gatsby as being an unfilmable novel, but I believe that nod belongs to Cloud Atlas... yet, the filmmakers have pulled it off with their bold experiment in storytelling, which can be said is linear and non-linear at the same time. My initial viewing required a lot of patience, but this film - a sweeping mosaic about how little it takes for the human condition to endure - was far more rewarding than I ever could have imagined. It's thought provoking and encourages introspection, and those who are willing to do this will find the journey to be just as rewarding as I did. I consider its greatest strength to be the fact that it doesn't pander to the masses, but this also serves as the film's major weakness. Cloud Atlas is not a film for everyone, but even if you happen to loathe every minute, the film still has the potential to draw you into countless discussions and debates for some time to come. It's for this reason the film comes highly recommended, but I warn you that no amount of expectation, from my review or any other, could truly decide if the film will suit your taste. As far as the disc is concerned, its supplemental package leaves a lot to be desired, but the A/V presentation is out of this world.
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!