THIS. This is what I go to the movies for.
I encountered David Mitchell's novel on which this movie is based back in the twelfth grade. It wasn't the easiest book to read - starting innocuously enough with an 18th century journal aboard a ship, it abruptly skips to another narrative about an aspiring composer set in the early twentieth century, before taking another sharp left turn into a '70s conspiracy thriller. Next up are stories about an aging, institutionalized publisher, a futuristic dystopian tale, and finally, a post apocalyptic quest. Mitchell allows for this last story to conclude, then doubles back to finish the other stories in reverse order. So yes, it wasn't a particularly easy read, but it remains one of the most satisfying - and daring - literary feats I have yet encountered. I was naturally nervous about the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer's adaptation, wondering how they could possibly bring this seemingly unfilmable novel to the screen.
Well, they brought it. And how.
If the book was daring, this movie is flat out insane in the best way possible. No more nested narratives - the six stories now happen simultaneously, weaving in and out of each other in a mind-boggling act of orchestration. What this juxtaposition does quite beautifully is enhance the sometimes dormant themes of the novel, and a clearer picture emerges before us. Cloud Atlas is ultimately the tale of how the human spirit strives for freedom, how the small everyday acts of bravery are no less heroic than the grand tales of rebellion. In its own way, it takes the history of humanity and paints it into a wondrous narrative that spans time and genre.
And it doesn't stop there. The other huge gambit the directors take is casting actors across different roles in different time periods. Except for bits where the makeup team occasionally fails them, this is a perfect decision. The novel snuck in the theme of reincarnation through hinting that the protagonists in each its stories were iterations of each other - the movie manages to take that theme and suffuse it with deeper meaning. Lovers cross and re-cross paths, meeting each other in one period, losing each other in another. One character's ultimately triumphant struggle with his dark side becomes a motif across each story. Connections established in one lifetime determine the choices made in another. Days after watching this film, I'm still going over its intricate puzzle pieces in my head.
This is incredible film-making. Through its final half hour, I was fighting back tears of astonishment, marvelling at the way it managed to work through moments of such grandeur to touch on experiences so deeply intimate. The romantics said that if you describe the particular with enough detail, the universal will begin to seep through - Cloud Atlas approaches this situation in the reverse, and through its broad abstractions, it finds its emotional reverberations.
One of the greatest book to film adaptations of all time, and hands down, the best movie of the year.