One thing’s for certain: Cloud Atlas doesn’t lack ambition. Or bad makeup. Threading together six disparate storylines set in six different time periods with an A-list cast juggling multiple roles, producer-directors Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola Run; Perfume), Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix movies) have concocted a cinematic experience that’s as lavish, intricate, and well-intentioned as it is pretentious, self-indulgent and grandiose. Men play women. Women play men. Blacks play whites. An Asian plays a freckled Victorian. Bad accents flourish. And Hugo Weaving, whether he’s a he, she, or ridiculous hoodoo leprechaun, is always the villain. All that’s missing in this time-hopping, mind-bending, kaleidoscopic narrative is a lip-smacking “Mr. Anderson” to connect the Wachowskis’ thematic obsessions.
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, and Doona Bae are both protagonists and supporting players in parallel vignettes that bounce through time and, eventually, space: from a would-be 19th-century slave trader (Sturgess) in the Pacific Islands to a gay 1930s composer’s assistant (Whishaw) who’s hoping to find fame to a 1970s investigative reporter (Berry) digging into a conspiracy involving a nuclear power plant to a modern-day publisher (Broadbent) who’s been committed to a nursing home by his revenge-minded brother to a cloned waitress (Bae) who seeks self-actualization in the dystopia of 2144’s Neo Seoul to a cowardly post-apocalyptic tribesman (Hanks) who guides a researcher (Berry again) past a marauding tribe of cannibals in order to find an ancient ruin that holds the key to mankind’s salvation. Got that?
Adapted to the screen, David Mitchell’s novel is still a sprawling and dizzying epic, but it mostly stumbles before getting off the ground for occasional flights.
Over the course of nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas shifts genre and tone with each leap through time, from comedic to action-packed to paranoid to sentimental, but keeps its stories connected by universal themes of greed, oppression, redemption and the embrace of love in even the bleakest of situations. It’s a karmic treadmill that takes a compendium of cinematic references — Amistad, Amadeus, The China Syndrome, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blade Runner, Soylent Green and Mad Max — and turns them into a narrative collage of pop culture and fortune-cookie philosophy.
While the constantly changing plot threads are demanding for the first hour, they’re actually quite gripping, breathlessly and adroitly establishing their characters and worlds and pulling us into something that feels massive in scope and aspiration. But once we’ve got a handle on who everyone is and where things are going, several of the stories lose steam, and most lack insight or catharsis. Tykwer and the Wachowskis go to great pains to link the passion and pain the various characters experience across time, underlining the terrible things mankind does to itself. But the puzzle pieces don’t fit together quite the way you’d hope, promising far more than they deliver. There is, indeed, a moral morsel in each individual tale but, ultimately, only one or two satisfy.
The best, titled An Orison of Sonmi~451, set in the chilly future, is a heartbreaking melodrama about a manufactured Geisha girl (Bae) who develops into a celebrated political activist. Though it devolves at one point into a Speed Racer-like hover-bike chase (reminding us of the Wachowskis’ least successful film), it has a haunting lyricism that transcends its CGI trappings. And its connection to Sturgess’ slave-ship vignette best echoes Cloud Atlas’ intentions. In contrast, the ’70s-style conspiracy struggles for relevancy, and the pidgin post-apocalyptic future that bookends the movie yields few dramatic rewards.
The cast, sometimes obscured under layers of poorly realized prosthetics, is equally uneven. Broadbent and Grant convincingly shift their personae with chameleon-like dexterity; Hanks hits as often as he misses; Weaving does his best with a kaleidoscope of two-dimensional goons; and the terminally bland Berry proves, once again, that her performance in Monster’s Ball was an overrated fluke. Still, it all amounts to a gimmick, one that has us playing Where’s Waldo instead of connecting with the heart of each story.
There’s little doubt that Cloud Atlas is an immensely earnest film. And there will inevitably be a devout tribe of fans who dissect each densely populated tale for symbolic and literal messaging. But by so transparently reaching for both blockbuster and masterpiece status, Tykwer and the Wachowskis short-change the individual dramatic arcs and miss opportunities for deeper and more resonant connective tissue. Their movie desperately wants us to walk away moved and inspired by their examples of self-actualization and love, but instead of earning that sentiment by steadily building toward personal revelation, they try to overwhelm us with the sheer accumulation of story and elevated emotions.