Spanning several centuries, while focusing on small, intimate, and seemingly arbitrary moments of human interaction, 'Cloud Atlas' takes on the bold endeavor of capturing what could only be understood as the human condition. The one consistent theme connecting the six, superficially different plots (or perhaps, subplots?), each separated by the invisible, abstract, but still very real gulfs of time, are those inherent, unassailable qualities which drive the existence of our species. Our will to learn from our experiences, an inclination for an emotional response affecting our rational intellect, and our introspective sense of self-awareness play a major role in how we choose to define our being and understand it as a commonality between all of humanity.
It's this commonality — this very fine, imperceptible, but also eternal thread essentially linking our lives to one another — which appears to be at the core of this wildly imaginative and complex sci-fi drama. Told in a nonlinear, disjointed fashion, where distant lives — both culturally as well as spatiotemporally — are presumably interrelated, which also makes up the bulk of the central mystery, this link is clearly expressed within the narrative's more straightforward arrangement, serving as its surface-level draw. The consequences of one person's actions are like a ripple effect on still waters, causing a slow progression of change, which implies a person's life and decisions, insignificant as they may seem at the time of their doing, have the potential to inspire future generations.
Cliché as it may be, the idea is similar to the effects of an echo. Even if you fail to pinpoint the location of the person making the sound, it remains a reasonable reflection of its source. Adam Ewing's (Jim Sturgess) near-fatal experience aboard a slave ship and the friendship he strikes with a Moriori slave (David Gyasi) inspires an aspiring musician nearly a century later who discovers the book practically by chance. Without having to enter too far into spoiler territory, Ewing's ordeal becomes the catalyst and ideal to other events, the source of a ceaseless wave of thought igniting the passions which make us human. As a cinematic experience, the beauty in enjoying something as unique as 'Cloud Atlas' is in watching this unconscious will and impetus within human inspiration and imagination explored with some small level of seriousness.
Taken to a deeper, more thoughtful extreme, the notion is very much Foucauldian, since knowledge is passed through the arts, specifically writing, and becomes theatrical representations that reveal weaknesses within a given power structure. While each of the six storylines feature many romantic elements, displaying our deep-rooted desire to love and be loved, they also highlight an endless struggle against unsympathetic greed, oppression, and a constant feeling of subjection, as in the stories of journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), fabricant Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) and aspiring composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw). There are also issues of selfishness and self-gratification, whether in our means for survival, as in Tom Hanks's Zachry living in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, or hopes for martyrdom, like Bae's service clone. Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is our modern-day model for freedom and individuality in a wonderfully memorable tale of always remaining young at heart.
'Cloud Atlas' has been called "ambitious" and "visionary," and I suppose, those are fair and accurate assessments. Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (of 'Run Lola Run' fame), the film is an absorbing and stimulating exploration of various themes concerning the human condition and Cartesian thought. Unfortunately, the narrative does feel somewhat overlong and drags a bit in the middle of the second act, yet it continues to make an impression, particularly in the cinematography of John Toll and Frank Griebe. Much like the film's central, overarching plot, the filmmakers take inspiration from David Mitchell's sweeping novel to ask thought-provoking, philosophical questions while managing to entertain and dazzle with several visual delights.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. brings 'Cloud Atlas' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. A Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably opposite a DVD-9 inside a blue, eco-vortex case with a colorful and glossy cardboard slipcover. After a couple skippable trailers at startup, viewers are taken to a static menu screen with music and generic options along the bottom of the screen.
'Cloud Atlas' debuts on Blu-ray with a stunning, reference-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, allowing viewers to really appreciate the mesmerizing cinematography of John Toll and Frank Griebe. Stylized yet subtle in its approach, the photography has an intriguing, classic Hollywood elegance to it with brilliant, spot-on contrast and vivid, crisp whites throughout. With an ultra-fine layer of grain just barely present, black levels are rich and penetrating, providing a great deal dimensionality and depth while also adding to the film's cinematic appeal. Delineation in the darkest portions is always visible and intelligible. A sumptuous and full-bodied color palette with richly-saturated primaries gives the production an intensely animated and energetic feel.
Along with the beautiful cinematography, the rest of the high-def transfer is razor-sharp, with crystal-clear clarity from beginning to end. The 2.40:1 image displays clean fine lines on various buildings and the several differing architectural styles of each period. Individual hairs are distinct, and natural facial complexions reveal every pore and trivial blemish with incredible lifelike textures. Every thread and stitch in the varying costumes is clear-cut and very well-defined while each detail and imperfection on rock formations, surrounding trees, the wooden sailing ship and the metallic-concrete future is plainly visible at all times. All in all, this is a dazzling presentation for a bold film.
The multi-layered film arrives with a great DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that will keep viewers generally engrossed. The design is bit more front-heavy than initially expected, which is in perfect tune, I suppose, with the filmmakers' intentions and it being a character-driven narrative at its core.
Dialogue is crystal-clear, with splendid intonation of each actor's emotional state and excellent intelligibility during many whispered conversations. Imaging is broad and expansive with a good deal of background activity, and the mid-range is very dynamic with detailed clarity in the instrumentation and the couple action sequences. There's not much going on in the LFE department, but there's a decent amount happening in the mid-bass, providing just enough of a punch to give some weight to the music and action. The rears are employed sparingly, typically during Neo Seoul and The Big Island scenes, with several convincing and mostly satisfying atmospherics and amusing panning effects. In the end, it's an excellent and enjoyable lossless mix, but not one to give the sound system a good workout.
A daring attempt to explore the human condition in six vastly different epochs, 'Cloud Atlas' is an all-encompassing and sprawling cinematic examination of the things which inspire and motivate us as a species. Adapted from the sweeping David Mitchell novel, the multi-genre film is a dazzling piece of entertainment that manages to stay focused and delivers a satisfying conclusion. It debuts on Blu-ray with reference-quality video and an excellent audio presentation. Supplements aren't very extensive, but they're amusing and surprisingly insightful nonetheless, making the overall package recommended for fans and a strong rental for others.