Ambitious, visionary and playful, Cloud Atlas is the fascinating culmination of an unprecedented collaboration among Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix movies) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) to bring David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” novel to the big screen. Spanning six stories over half a millennia with an ensemble of actors appearing in multiple roles, the narrative tackles grand themes like love, freedom, creativity, interconnectivity and souls reverberating throughout time. Unfortunately, the ideas behind and the making of the production are more interesting than the film itself. Within an innovative structure that toys with genre, the individual plots are mere sketches, each worthy of its own full-length script.
In 1849, a young, idealistic San Francisco attorney (Jim Sturgess) travels to the South Pacific to conduct business with a plantation owner, only to have his belief system challenged by a stowaway slave (David Gyasi). In 1936, a gifted composer (Ben Whishaw) disinherited by his father leaves his male lover to write his masterpiece in Scotland while apprenticing with a renowned composer past his prime (Jim Broadbent). In 1973, a San Francisco journalist (Halle Berry) uncovers a corporate conspiracy at a nuclear power plant, putting her life in danger.
In 2012, a small-time English publisher (Broadbent again) finally finds success with the unlikely bio of a Scottish thug (Tom Hanks, unlike you’ve ever seen him before) only to face unjust imprisonment. In 2144, a genetically engineered waitress (Doon Bae) in Neo Seoul, built above the ruins of a flooded Seoul, embarks on a tentative journey toward freedom. And in the post-apocalyptic 2300s, a goat herder (Hanks again) struggles to come to terms with what he has done to stay alive.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer deftly interweave these disparate, though thematically linked, plots throughout the film’s nearly three-hour running time. By comparison, the book’s nesting structure is downright simple. And although it’s jarring at first to segue from period action-adventure and melodrama, to contemporary mystery thriller and farce, to futuristic sci-fi and dystopia, what emerges is a sophisticated, satisfying rhythm.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily make Cloud Atlas enjoyable to watch. For all of its ambition, the movie’s individual segments feel undeveloped, and, like the Wachowskis’ talky second and third Matrix movies, heavily reliant on dialogue to convey its philosophical underpinnings, which is particularly challenging for viewers since the dialogue is sometimes hard to understand. (The pidgin dialect in the post-apocalyptic scenes particularly is at times nearly indecipherable.)
Unrecognizable too, at times, are the actors—even high-profile stars like Hanks and Berry—who pop up in roles big and small throughout the timeline. In some cases, it’s not until the end credits that one even realizes all the parts they played—a casting strategy that underscores the film’s themes of karma and past lives, as each performer plays multiple characters but one soul transmigrating through time. Through the magic of makeup and prosthetics by a team of artists highly deserving of recognition this awards season, they cross race and gender lines—not without generating controversy.
As is to be expected from the groundbreaking Wachowskis, the visuals are also often stunning, particularly in the action-packed 2144 New Seoul sequences. Cloud Atlas certainly is an audacious feat of filmmaking. But although it’s worthy of appreciation, even admiration, ultimately it’s just not that entertaining.
Directors: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Writers: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
Release Date: Oct. 26, 2012