Cloud Atlas, the collaboration by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to bring the novel of the same name by David Mitchell to the big screen is, to put it bluntly, a mess. It’s an ambitious mess to be sure as the project bites off far more than it can chew by casting a small group of actors playing multiple roles across different time periods, but it’s a mess none the less. Fans of the book may be prepared for what’s to come, but the rest of us could use a road map of this late night ride to nowhere. (At least nowhere interesting.)
The film beings by throwing the audience into a variety of stories taking place decades, or in some cases centuries, apart (including two distinctly different version of the future – one of which owes a little too much to The Time Machine). Introducing a slew of characters in the opening 15-20 minutes, all played by the same group of actors who jump centuries, ethnicities, and even gender between tales (due to some strikingly inconsistent make-up and CGI), Cloud Atlas hits the ground running and expects you to keep up.
Our stories include an American (Jim Sturgess) on a long sea voyage home from the Chatham Islands in the 1850’s, a talented but scandalous musician (Ben Whishaw) who works as an amanuensis to a famous composer (Jim Broadbent) in the 1930’s, an average thriller involving a journalist (Halle Berry) set in the 1970’s, the misadventures of a book publisher (Broadbent) who is confined to a nursing home against his will in the early 21st Century, a love story in the dystopian near future between a freedom fighter (Sturgess) and clone (Doona Bae) he rescues from a life of servitude, and a far future involving a member of each of the two separate races (Berry, Tom Hanks) of humanity working together.
For the first two hours the film guards its secrets well, teasing us on how it will link them through music of “The Cloud Atlas” and the unsubtle comet-shaped birthmarks many of the characters share. The script forces the audience’s attention to detail (which, sadly also easily displays its flaws) in an effort to encourage the viewers to come to their own conclusions about just how deeply the stories’ themes are intertwined. And then, for no apparent reason, the film throws in the towel and explicitly states the meaning of each story by having characters directly face the camera and talk to the audience. Once revealed, the film’s big themes prove to be nothing more than cliched ideas and trite suggestions about reincarnation and how important freedom, love, and individuality are to the continued evolution of the human race.
Cloud Atlas is maddening, jumping from story to story and, at times, providing the basic ideas for some terrific storytelling. However, once that framework is built (in a extensive, painstakingly long, process), there’s simply no payoff to be had. The film is like a performer on stage spinning twelve separate plates in the air at once, only to ignore four of five of the plates break over the course of the performance but still continues to spin each of the poles as if nothing has gone wrong.
For all its attempts to convince us it’s taking us on a wondrous journey the film actually relies on a series of misdirection techniques to mask the fact that it’s themes are far from imaginative, it’s plots are recycled or borrowed from a host of more cohesive movies, and several of its stories can’t hold up on their own. Over nearly three hours the film jerks the audience around, in and out of a byzantine story structure that hopes to hide its flaws, even going so far as to stoop and brazenly appeal to the worst type of audience manipulation.
The movie panders to the audience for cheap pops not unlike a strutting professional wrestler starved for the adulation of the crowd. The worst case of this comes more than two-hours into the film when one character beats another to death with a wrench followed by a “clever” quip and racial slur that is so self-serving and pandering it should cause even someone like Michael Bay to wince.
Equal parts pretension and ambition, Cloud Atlas may wish to show us how all of humanity is related over time and distance, but the film is riddled with problems of basic storytelling, special effects that constantly distract from themes it is trying to explore (I really didn’t need to see an attempt to make Hugo Weaving look Asian or a woman), and odd tangents that are never explored (such as the story behind Tom Hanks’ hallucinatory friend in the far future). With no cohesive structure, and stories which aren’t neatly as tied together as they should be, the three-hour movie is impossible to sit through without boredom setting in. There’s not a single story that couldn’t use some extensive editing for a film that’s at least an hour too long.