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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Tom Hanks in one of six storylines of "Cloud Atlas," in theaters now.
Tom Hanks in one of six storylines of "Cloud Atlas," in theaters now.

"Cloud Atlas" soars

Anyone who's seen a trailer for "Cloud Atlas" or even heard the smallest amount of buzz surrounding it knows it looks a little, well, nuts. This massive new undertaking from the Wachowski siblings boasts teaser footage guaranteed to melt your brain, plus a cast of characters and settings that – while impressive on paper – could have easily stifled the promise right out of it.

Thankfully (and a little surprisingly), it didn't.

"Cloud Atlas" contains six vignettes that take place at various points in time, from the 1800s to two vastly different futuristic civilizations. They're tied together by a cast of characters whose interactions with each other in each life help shape and alter their intertwined futures. These major players (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae, among others) embody entire casts all on their own, assuming new roles with each narrative in a sort of of cosmic Mad Hatter tea party.

It's a pretty big premise to deliver on, and "Cloud Atlas" doesn't mince around. Its frenetic opening lays it all on the table to set the groundwork for all six stories in mere moments. While a bit overwhelming (and a little reckless, considering almost all of the audience is already primed with a mix of confusion and intrigue), these first few minutes are not at all indicative of the pace to follow.

In what's probably a model example of skill and organization, screenwriters Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer execute "Cloud Atlas" seamlessly. They link together the plots and characters with a graceful, scientific precision almost akin to DNA replication – brilliantly complex, but so flawless it comes off easy.

This seamless balance is thanks in a large part to the common elements that take place throughout each narrative. Pivotal themes of conflict, escape and moments of good old deja vu transcend the eras and give "Cloud Atlas" ample opportunities to adeptly transition in and out of the six.

Because of this, "Cloud Atlas" still gives audiences the traditional movie experience. It harnesses the ebb and flow of each story, layering and weaving them together at similar junctures to create an overall progression from exposition to conflict, and finally to climax and resolution.

Technically, the film is superb. The sheer breadth of skill needed to bring such a weighty story off of its pages and into a visual medium, as well as mold its diverse array of characters out of a handful of actors, is a major testament to the talents of both the cast and crew. Ambitious as it was, however, there were still a few hurdles even this able group couldn't clear.

"Cloud Atlas" relies heavily on makeup to transform its characters from one life to the next. Because there are so many recognizable faces being altered into so many diverse incarnations (many cross genders and races over the course of the film) the results came off artificial at times. Some were more overt than others, but luckily there's so much going on it quickly blends into the tapestry. It actually makes quite an impact if you stay for the credits, which smartly show off each actor's cast of characters (and more than a few surprises that went unnoticed).

The only other obstacle was understanding the characters in the film's most futuristic vignette, the post-apocalyptic Big Isle. They speak in a kind of minimalist amalgamation of American English dialects, which is a mix of curious and frustrating for the audience. It's unfortunately used to narrate the film's opening, adding to the jumbled introduction, and wavers in and out of comprehension throughout the rest of the time "Cloud Atlas" spends in the era. The crucial moments are articulated with better clarity and more conventional speech patterns, but it's a hindrance nonetheless.

Those relatively tiny setbacks aside, "Cloud Atlas" is just incredible. It's a sweeping epic of impressive scope, tackling an overarching theme of inequality in myriad forms with a broad, purposeful progression and ultimately lofty transcendence. Visually stunning and elegantly crafted, it's material isn't necessarily novel, but its presentation succeeds masterfully.

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