Their ingenuity lies first and foremost in the choice of casting their impressive ensemble in multiple roles. We see them in the past, in the present, in the futures to come. We see them as heroes, we see them as villains; we see their hopes and their fears; their love and their losses. We see their courage.
Recurring throughout is the maxim, ‘Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.’ It lives with this conviction, and the casting of each actor/actress in multiple roles cements this idea in our minds.
To attempt to delve into the plot here would be a labyrinthine undertaking in itself. The film does not reduce well – and this works very much in its favour. We see almost all of its cast in almost all of its temporal and geographical shifts – Tom Hanks in a post-apocalyptic future, and in the mid-1970s; Jim Sturgess falling ill traversing the Pacific Ocean in the nineteenth century, and in a not-too-distant dystopian (blockbuster of a) future; Hugo Weaving as a demonic figure in a post-apocalyptic future, and a female nurse in the present day.
And that is but a few of the actors in a few of their iterations. The stories and the scope are tremendous, and it takes an extremely talented cast, guided by extremely talented writer-directors, to pull off such a feat.
Much will be made of Hanks’ various guises, moving from villain to hero across the differing ages, and rightly so, for he is one of the strongest parts at the core of the film. But for me, the most intriguing and hard-hitting stories were the cycles revolving around Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae, who are utterly remarkable here.
Sturgess takes on the role of hero/revolutionary, Hae-Joo, in the dystopian future not far off, coming to the rescue of Bae’s Sonmi-451. By and large, Sturgess’ career has been centred around dramas and romantic-dramas, but here he shines as an action hero like few before him coming into such a role for the first time.
This dystopian future consists of some of the most mind-blowing visuals of any film in recent years, and we see the Wachowskis bringing their wealth of experience with The Matrix Trilogy to the table here brilliantly.
What ultimately comes across throughout the film is humanity, which is precisely where the maxim quoted above fits in. Everything is connected, regardless of race, creed, gender, orientation, age, or when you were born. This humanity comes to the fore and for one hundred and sixty-four minutes, we are treated to an altogether new kind of blockbuster.
The recurring theme in the score played at times throughout the film (also heard in the first two minutes of the extended trailer) is heart-breakingly beautiful. The many recurrences echo through and through on every level.
Cloud Atlas is truly a magnificent accomplishment, an epic film that defies genre, defies reduction, and (perhaps most importantly) defies what US studios expect from a nine-figure-budgeted film. It can’t be simplified, it thinks outside the box, and it strives for invention rather than trading on old formulae. It is already dividing critics, but to my mind, it is an instant classic, and one I cannot wait to see again.