There’s something to be said about 2012 in cinema. While Hollywood continues to splurge on big-budget superhero sequels and remakes, this year has given us movies that are pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.
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“Looper” gave sci-fi films a much-needed reboot, “Moonrise Kingdom” proved that there is a heart to Wes Anderson’s imagination, “Cabin in the Woods” edged along the boundary of horror and comedy without ever turning to the now-exhausted use of a handheld camera in the making of a horror film.
And then there’s “Cloud Atlas,” a film that transcends so many genres it has created a category all for itself. “Atlas” suffers occasionally from the perils of over-ambition, but its grand scope, mesmerizing visuals and oft-noble messages make it one of the year’s most unforgettable movies.
The film begins with Adam Ewing’s (Jim Sturgess, “One Day”) discovery of a black tribe’s enslavement in the Chatham Islands during the 19th century California gold rush. His rescue of a tribesman, who then tangles with a ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks, “Larry Crowne”), leads to the start of Ewing’s movement against slavery. “Atlas” then traverses another decade, telling the story of an unemployed musician in search for inspiration and a passionate journalist, Luisa (Halle Berry, “New Year’s Eve”), out to expose a conspiratorial oil executive (Hugh Grant, “The Pirates! Band of Misfits”). Nearly two centuries later, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae, “The Host”), a genetically engineered clone, leads a revolution, like Ewing, against societal injustice, becoming a goddess to the people of a post-apocalyptic world in the distant future.
Because of the visionary perspective of its three directors, Lana Wachowski and her brother Andy (“The Matrix” trilogy) and Tom Twyker (“Run Lola Run”), and the complexity of the book it’s based on, “Atlas” is an innovative film. The stories told are all different and epic in scope, but manage to find a connecting string in their portrayal of society’s oppression of those that are different, regardless of time.
It’s also, however, a textbook example of a film that struggles between imagery and substance, and it’s unclear whether that’s an occupational hazard of trying to tell six stories that span over 500 years or a crippling shortcoming. For the most part, the movie succeeds because of joint direction — the Wachowskis and Twyker are able to execute a very “Matrix”-like vision of the future while extracting almost perfect performances from a supremely talented cast.
But “Atlas” struggles to find a notable connection between its stories and characters, supposedly reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies over time. The point of this reincarnation is lost in the overall context, and the directors are unable to tie loose ends together. Though it seems as if a missing piece of the puzzle might become more evident upon a second viewing of the film, it won’t, because it’s not there.
Regardless of that gaping hole, there’s more than enough in “Atlas” to enjoy, as it finds at least one common message about the persistence of the human spirit through time — both in the mistakes we make as a species and how we overcome them.
The actors are stellar as they portray a multitude of characters each as well-developed and captivating as the other. Hanks, Berry and Sturgess in particular play six different reincarnations of their respective characters, ranging from cannibalistic tribal leaders to futuristic army commanders. They pull off that endeavor successfully, proving that the real heroes of “Atlas” are in fact its make-up artists, who deserve so much more than a standing ovation come awards season.
“Cloud Atlas” is ambitious and thoughtful. It expertly meshes sci-fi, drama, comedy and historic fantasy into something strange and enjoyable. And despite its lapses in lucidity, “Atlas” wins simply because its unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.