Anyone who saw the extended teaser trailer released for Cloud Atlas a couple months back had to know this movie was shooting for the stars. There was no plot on display, not even much of a through-line. Instead, the almost-six-minute teaser showed shots from six different stories set in different times and different countries but strewn together by similar actors, themes, ideas, and art.
The film – though much, much longer than six minutes – functions the same way. Each storyline – set in the the 19th – 23rd centuries – has its own story, but together they don’t present an overall plot. There’s never any kind of literal coming together of characters from these different story paths, but they do sort of meet in ways that none of them can appreciate from their perspective.
Cloud Atlas isn’t setting out to tell a story conventionally, but what is most remarkable about it is how cleanly and clearly they present it. Even if general audiences might not be interested in this kind of film, no one can blame directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski of having crafted a film that those general audiences won’t be able to follow, or even appreciate.
One fun way the different storylines link up with each other is by using the same actors in different roles from each period – it’s not unusual for some of these players to have five different characters. They’re each heavily made-up, sometimes to the point that they’re supposed to resemble another race. That may have worked on the drawing board, but on-screen it can’t be pulled off. For example, when English actor James D’Arcy is made to play a South Korean man from the future, it looks so unnatural that I had assumed he was supposed to be some sort of new breed of super-human.
What defines Cloud Atlas is its supreme ambition. Whereas most movies set a simple goal for the character – get the girl, make it out of here alive, save the world – Cloud Atlas is trying for something transcendent. Tykwer and the Wachowskis can’t just deliver a good film on this promise, they have to wholly move an audience. On this level, Cloud Atlas is an definite failure – never is its theme of interconnectivity so profound that it delivers the “Eureka!” moment it is built in anticipation of.
But it’s important not to rate Cloud Atlas by these measure exclusively, because for any film with aspirations this wild not to crash with an overwhelming thud is itself an achievement – and there are a lot of things that Cloud Atlas does well.
It’s most valuable asset is its editing. 164-minute films should never feel this short, but every sequence in Cloud Atlas bleeds so instantaneously into the next that it’s hard to notice the minutes tick away. And while none of the storylines are particularly intriguing, getting zig-zagged from one to another keeps your curiosity running as to what’s coming up next, and how will they pick up on that one character?
Cloud Atlas seems like a film that requires patience and devotion to appreciate, but in reality it requires no effort to follow along. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, this movie has the pull of a roller coaster.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t make Cloud Atlas the sensation it is designed to be. Its central theme of connections from one life to the next isn’t any more interesting after watching the feature than it is after watching its teaser. There’s no revelation at the end of Cloud Atlas, and there’s not one at any other point, either. The purpose of the film is obvious from the get-go, once you figure that out, you just have to enjoy the ride.