“Cloud Atlas” is a huge, exhausting film, one that might defy audiences to even make up their minds about whether or not they like it. It’s an important work in that it demands analysis and discussion as precious few do, providing a cornucopia of ambitious technical decisions, intertwined narratives, and New Age rhetoric that succeeds and fails almost equally. There’s much here — to hate, love, or both. But does the film “work”? I suspect most will agree that it doesn’t much of the time, but that it does click as a whole. “Cloud Atlas” might be greater than the sum of its parts.
Adapted by the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix” trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) from David Mitchell’s novel, “Cloud Atlas” weaves six vaguely related stories together throughout its near three-hour running length. Each is set in a different time period and they often take on markedly different tones from one another (historical drama, progressive mystery, post-apocalyptic thriller, etc). The stories are intercut, but chronological within themselves. They all share one surface similarity: protagonists who struggle for the freedom of self or others against oppressive forces.
Many reviews of “Cloud Atlas” make the film sound like something one could get lost in–the kind of cinema that provides more of a sensory, spiritual experience than a traditional, narrative-based one–but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The filmmakers never aim to disorient (the stories are objectively coherent), nor do they invoke a lyrical storytelling rhythm intended to allow for dreamlike submission in the viewer. In fact, the film’s threaded plots, myriad attempts at symbolism, and difficult dialects demand vigilant attentiveness. “Cloud Atlas” as much as challenge to the viewer as it is an experience.
One would expect something convoluted out of six stories unspooled simultaneously, but the film’s great technical achievement is in precise storytelling that renders every installment easy to follow, each transitioning smoothly into the next and back again. It’s an impressive feat of writing and editing that what could have easily felt like a juggling act always seems cohesive, even though the tales themselves mostly have little diegetic connection (they hit their dramatic notes congruently, but one would be hard-pressed to explicitly link them to one another). The stories are merged so seamlessly that their collective resolutions carry great resonance. Themes and motifs aren’t so much the important connective tissue as the careful editing that bonds them is. The stories exist here so that they exist together as one.
The cast–most notably Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Korean actress Bae Doona–play different roles in each story, apparently an effort to symbolize the souls of others jumping from era to era. It’s an intriguing idea, necessitated by the complexity of the narrative and perhaps budget constraints, that proves near-disastrous in practice. The actors are often given roles in opposite genders and races, an effect that the filmmakers are at a loss about how to express effectively. It’s difficult not to chortle at the sight of Keith David in Korea-face, or Doona in white-face, or Weaving as a woman. The rotation ensures that nearly every actor must utterly humiliate him or herself at least once, a painful distraction that a film this reliant on audience focus can’t afford. Perhaps even worse, the roles usually have no discernible connection to one another, producing off-putting “spot the actor” moments instead of imbuing scenes with meaningful connections. But if certain appearances misfire, others ignite when the material is within the performer’s comfort zone.
I left “Cloud Atlas” uncertain, not of what it all meant, but at how to feel about it. The film is a certifiable failure when considering certain aspects of the visual effects, performances, and themes, but a rousing success when considering others. Rarely does any kind of art deserve to be analyzed with an “A for Effort” mentality, but “Cloud Atlas” proves utterly unforgettable by dint of its ambition, its willingness to simultaneously reach in multiple directions while remaining wholly lucid, both aesthetically and as a narrative. “Cloud Atlas” has the distinct echo of a truly unique movie, where all of the strengths and flaws stay with the viewer long after it ends. I don’t know if this is a good film, but I do know that it’s a hell of a shot at one.