I’ll admit it’s exciting to watch great filmmakers like Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer take on a film so epic it borders on the impossible. But it’s bitterly disappointing to see them fail. Cloud Atlas, which is based on David Mitchell’s, apparently unfilmable, 2004 novel of the same name, alternates (sometimes incomprehensibly) between six stories that range across place and time – some set in the past, some in the present and some in the future. Essentially the six stories have six different genres, with a handful of actors playing multiple roles, in a film so large it requires a three hour running time. The six stories are held together by a recurring inexplicable birthmark and themes of friendship, liberation and the belief that we are all interconnected. Collectively they work as entertainment, but dissect each story and you’ll discover that none of them are as powerful on their own. And that’s where the trouble comes in. Once the gimmick fades, Cloud Atlas, although visually appealing, is unsatisfactory.
“Composing is a crusade. Sometimes you slay the dragon. Sometime it slays you,” explains one of the characters. These are three lines that should have been taken to heart while developing Cloud Atlas. Across the three hours actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae and Keith David appear on screen as different characters hidden under pounds of makeup and prosthetics. In one story Hugh Grant might appear as an old Englishman, but in another, after some manipulation to his eyes, he plays a Chinese pimp. The idea is interesting at first, but you’ll soon find yourself playing spot the actor or peakaboo, instead of focusing on the story at hand. It’s honestly distracting and after just an hour through I found myself struggling to take it all seriously.
Defining what Cloud Atlas is about, is nearly as hard as explaining what happens. The six stories unfold as:
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (South Pacific Ocean) – In the 19th century, a notary traveling abroad receives treatment from a doctor and befriends a slave.
Letters from Zedelghem (Cambridge, England and Edinburgh, Scotland) – In the 30s, a penniless composer flees after he is caught spending a night with his male lover. He musters up a plan to meet a legendary composer and become his apprentice.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (San Francisco, California) – In the 70s, a frustrated journalist investigates a nuclear power company. All her leads are killed off one by one and the company soon comes after her.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (London, England and Edinburgh, Scotland) – In the present day, a publisher escapes a group of gangsters who come collecting their pay. His brother offers him a solution and sends him off to check into a retirement home. The following morning when he tries to check out he realizes that he has been tricked by his brother, who is punishing him for sleeping with his wife.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 (Neo Seoul, Korea and Hawaii) – In the future, a clone waitress, who exists only to serve, discovers freewill and a greater destiny.
Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (Hawaii, dated 106 winters after the Fall) – In 2321, a tribesman receives a visit from a superior race of humans that some worship as gods.
Channel-hopping between the different stories grows increasingly annoying, especially when the editing is used to build suspense – cutting in the middle of a big reveal. Weaving multiple storylines together is no easy feat, but it all seems willy-nilly here. One moment we’re looking at Tom Hanks in the future and the next we see Tom Hanks in the 70s. Those who struggle with incoherent storytelling of Quentin Tarantino will be completely lost at sea here.
Look closely and you’ll notice that there are brief moments of brilliance in Cloud Atlas. The acting is exceptional and some of the visuals are breathtaking. It’s not a complete failure, some might even find it enjoyable, but it certainly is a far stretch from being brilliant. Those expecting Cloud Atlas to be anything remotely transcendent, like the Matrix, will be sorely disappointed.