Cloud Atlas (2012, directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer)
(Note the credit: Lana and Andy, not just "the Wachowskis". It's fitting, in a way, that this is the movie for which Lana first gets billing under her new name, as Cloud Atlas addresses questions about the nature of human identity, what it means in fact to be 'human', as well as dabbling in themes of persecution and freedom. Now as to how successfully it addresses those themes and questions, well...)
Based on a thought-to-be-unfilmable book, Cloud Atlas tells six disparate stories set in six disparate time periods: a harrowing ocean voyage in the 1800s, a young composer struggling to make a name for himself in the 1930s, an intrepid reporter uncovering a scandal in the 1970s, the comic escapades of an aging publisher in the present day, the education and enlightenment of a cloned worker in Seoul in the 2100s, and a desperate quest for the remains of a lost civilization in the far future. The film hops back and forth between each story, gradually teasing out links between them, while also featuring nearly the same cast of actors in each playing sometimes wildly different roles. The result is not the confusing mishmash it might have been: each story and each time period is clearly distinct from each other in look and feel, and thanks to makeup, language and accent there's never any confusion about who or what you're seeing on screen. That, alone, makes Cloud Atlas an impressive achievement, but there's a lot more going on in it than just some nice plot-juggling. On a certain level it's also a puzzle movie. Each story shows up as a story in the succeeding time period: the young composer, for instance, finds a torn copy of a book that purports to be a journal of that 1800s ocean voyage, while the aging publisher is sent a manuscript presenting the '70s investigation as a crime novel. The entire film is also bookended by an old storyteller entertaining children around a fire. Those touches adds a nice bit of uncertainty to the proceedings, creating a smidge of doubt as to whether the stories are supposed to be 'real' or merely fictions within the larger fiction. There's also a fun game of 'spot the actor' that goes on once you realize how the casting operates, as the roles of some very recognizable faces are not always obvious.
That uncertainty is actually necessary, because unfortunately the film felt just a little too simplified and straight-forward thematically. I hesitate to say it's dumbed-down for a mass audience, but I'm not sure I can be more charitable. When you get down to its core, Cloud Atlas tells us that freedom is good, persecution is bad, and people are people. Well, duh. It isn't enough, for instance, to have Sonmi-451's story in Neo Seoul be one of a "fabricant" and her dawning realization that despite her origins she is as human as someone who came from a womb. No, the futuristic society that created her has to be shown treating her as inhumanely as we treat livestock today, if not worse. And those elements are also reflected in the stories of the young man on the ocean voyage, who befriends a runaway slave and eventually becomes an abolitionist; and in the publisher's imprisonment in an old age home against his will; and the struggles faced by the composer due to his sexual orientation. Such links may help make the movie feel more coherent, but they also make it feel awfully on the nose at times, like it's one story told six different ways as opposed to six different stories. Granted, that is one of the things the film is trying to say, but it doesn't so it with much subtlety.
The other area in which Cloud Atlas feels like something of a let-down is in the performances. Tom Hanks is particularly cringe-worthy in a couple of places, portraying a thuggish "British" author (I'm putting British in quotes because his accent is just excruciating), while neither he nor Halle Berry come across looking good trying to handle a future island dialect that veers dangerously close to Jar-Jar territory. The makeup also isn't up to the herculean tasks set for it. Hugo Weaving is supposed to look comical as the Nurse Rached-like matron at the old age home, but Jim Sturgess looks no more like a Korean resistance fighter than Boris Karloff did an evil Chinese mastermind, and dotting Doona Bae's face with freckles doesn't allow her to pass as the very British wife of the ocean voyager.
The film's strengths more than balance out those missteps though. In terms of cinematography and effects it looks amazing across all six time periods while still always feeling like one movie instead of six different ones, which is even more astounding when you consider the Wachowskis shot three segments and Tykwer shot three using two completely separate crews. The performances are for the most part very good (Jim Broadbent will never let you down, while of the supporting cast Hugh Grant of all people is tremendous) and certainly its themes are worthy ones, even if they get treated a bit shallowly. In fact if I'd compare Cloud Atlas to anything (and I know it's a weird comparison, so bear with me on this) it would be the film that really cemented Hanks as an A-list star, Forrest Gump. The two have nothing in common plot-wise, but both are incredible technical achievements that sell their source material a bit short in order to take a shot at reaching a wider audience. That calculation paid off big-time for Gump, but I'm not convinced it will for Tykwer and the Wachowskis' crazy collaboration. For the record I liked it far more than Zemeckis' facile blockbuster though, and I'm really hoping it does strike the necessary chord with audiences to become a hit.
Whatever flaws Cloud Atlas has, we need more movies with this kind of ambition.