SUMMARY: Audacious, daring, and never uninteresting, yet the execution falls far short of its visionary ambitions.
PROS: Visually absorbing and lush; interlocked narratives that run the gamut from historical journey to far-future adventure.
CONS: Stories too jaggedly pieced together and never compelling on their own; intriguing cast playing things too broadly.
Tom Tykwer and the siblings Wachowski deserve a good deal of credit for attempting to bring David Mitchell’s sprawling novel Cloud Atlas to the screen. Alas, they also must accept the blame for so much of what goes wrong with Cloud Atlas, which, like David Lynch’s completely wrongheaded adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, retains much of the structure and many of the characters but fails to understand the core theme. Or perhaps they understood it, but felt they needed to change it to meet studio and audience needs. The former seems more plausible; the creators of The Matrix Trilogy and the director of Run, Lola, Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer certainly have shown themselves willing to tackle bold projects, even when they demonstrate glib comprehension.
That doesn’t mean that Tykwer and the Wachowskis completely fail with Cloud Atlas. In telling this metatale of six interconnected stories of opposing genres in different timestreams, they dazzle viewers with sumptuous and stunning visuals while challenging traditional narrative structures intended to exhilarate viewers—think of Sucker Punch but with loftier ambitions, or a more commercial version of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. But to allow the audience to feel that dizzying exhilaration, they must jar with a jagged structure that will alienate some and, unfortunately, may be too confusing even for experienced viewers. Leaping from a post-apocalyptic Hawaii to the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s, thence from 1930s Europe to 1970s San Francisco, and from 21st-century London to a 22nd-century Neo Seoul, Cloud Atlas wants to create the same interweaving Robert Altman used to compelling effect in Short Cuts while blowing one’s mind with breathtaking color and conceptual daring along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey re-imagined by Pier Paolo Pasolini during his Trilogy of Life phase—yet in attempting to cram this imaginative sextet into a movie just under three hours they sacrifice much of the movie’s narrative drive, to say nothing of its emotional and intellectual engagement. It is an epic made of cotton candy.
Surprisingly, Cloud Atlas retains all of its source material’s main stories. On the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s, the San Francisco notary Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) observes the treatment of members of a Maori tribe on a small island before booking passage on a ship bound for the United States…and finds a Maori stowaway (David Gyasi) in his cabin while also succumbing to the lethal charms of Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), who poisons Ewing in the hopes of taking his money. In the Europe of the 1930s, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) treks to Belgium to serve as amanuensis to Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), and while under his tutelage composes the breathtakingly beautiful “Cloud Atlas.” In 1970s San Francisco, investigative reporter Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates the machinations of a nuclear power plant controlled by Alberto Grimaldi (Hugh Grant), and suddenly finds herself the target of the hitman Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving). Meanwhile, in 2012, publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) finds sudden success with author Dermot Hoggins’ (Hanks) new book, but must hide from gangsters who want their cut by imprisoning himself in a rest home overseen by the domineering Nurse Noakes (Weaving). Cut to the 22nd century’s Neo Seoul, where Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess) frees fabricant Yoona-939 (Zhou Xun) in order to free all synthetic humans. And in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, the offworlder Meronym (Berry) strikes a deal with tribesman Zachry Bailey (Hanks) to travel up a mountain to send a signal to the depths of space.
Each of these episodes do have a connecting thread in the form of journals, testimonies, love letters, true crime manuscript, and, in a clever moment, film adaptation of a memoir, yet none feel complete in themselves. Moreover, when pieced together, all feel surprisingly routine and trite. Ewing’s journey smacks too much of Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, complete with corny epiphany; the thriller embedded in the 1970s feels like every cop or reporter show Quinn Martin sold to the networks; Neo Seoul, while incredibly realized, marries the sensibilities of The Fifth Element and Bladerunner with middling results. The post-apocalyptic world that acts as the movie’s frame borrows language from Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban as well as plots rehashed from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth and Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes, but does not blend them into a coherent whole. Only Frobisher’s and Cavendish’s adventures offer much depth or even joy.
Why use the same actors in different roles? Though not made clear in the script (written by Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski), they all seem to be reincarnated. These provide additional connections, but the screenplay draws all of them too broadly, allowing the cast only to perform in the broadest strokes possible. They also cripple the movie’s core theme; what should be a commentary on the predation of individuals and groups, all seems undercut by its saccharine observation that companionship makes it all worthwhile.
For all of that, Cloud Atlas still makes for a fascinating visual experience. While it never achieves the heights it sets out for itself, it never completely bogs down, either. As a movie, it’s a bit of a mess. But one wishes all messes could look this good.