The term “ambitious” gets thrown around quite a bit in film criticism these days. I myself have been as guilty as anyone when it comes to using that word as a parachute, a safety blanket to cover over a wide range of concepts, thoughts, and ideas that would be otherwise difficult to describe in a thousand words or less. Cloud Atlas, however, stands out as the proverbial picture in the dictionary and has me thinking that perhaps I should reconsider my use of the word. Properly summarizing the concepts laid out in Cloud Atlas isn’t the easiest endeavor I’ve ever taken on. We begin in 1849 and wind up at an unknown point far off in the future with stops in 1931, the 1970s, 2012, and 2144. Through each of these stories, vignettes if you will, two people find each other over and over again throughout their many lifetimes. In each storyline, our star-crossed lovers or would-be lovers face all manner of difficulty and in each they are forced to deal with the hardships, be they physical or ideological, of the day on their paths to mutual discovery. As the film progresses, the six storylines are brought closer and closer together, each resembling the others more and more until they are all brought together into one gigantic tale.
Taken as a whole, the main story of Cloud Atlas is the story of life, or at least life as director Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer see it. (Yes, we have three directors at work here and yes, sometimes the “too many cooks in the kitchen” metaphor is quite apparent.) It holds great similarities to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life though its medium for telling its story is more accessible than that of Tree of Life. To bring their VERY longwinded film to life, the Wachowski’s and Tykwer assembled an esteemed group of actors and put them into a wide range of situations that vary dramatically from scene to scene. One of the concepts at play here is the idea that gender and race are fluid, at least in relation to multiple lifetimes. Each of the actors (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and several others) pop up in all of the six stories and in each one their respective appearances are dramatically different. If you’ve ever wondered what Jim Sturgess looks like as a futuristic Asian or whether Halle Berry holds up as a turn of the century white woman then this is your chance. In addition, the focus of each storyline is different because our main characters, the aforementioned star-crossed lovers, differ in each vignette. Sometimes it’s Hanks and Berry, sometimes it’s Sturgess and Doona Bae, sometimes D’Arcy and Ben Winshaw. I found this to be an interesting twist but one that can be quite confusing and that carries over into just about every element of Cloud Atlas.
I would argue that, as is often the case with epics of this magnitude, the team behind Cloud Atlas mistook complexity and convolution for depth. Anything this grand is inherently complex but it goes far beyond that. This is a very difficult film to dive into and it requires a great deal of effort on the part of the viewer. You have to want to like this movie and nothing is made easy. It is challenging enough to stick with the far-reaching narrative and follow the path of our main characters as they jump from body to body. This challenge is taken a step farther with the directors force-feeding the audience a number of ideas that not everyone is going to agree with or buy into. I’m usually good at suspending reality in order to enjoy a movie but the convergence of concepts in Cloud Atlas often proved too much for me to wrap my head around and accept. I found too much of the film to be preachy and the portrayal of anyone (usually Hugo Weaving) who opposes the inevitable union of our main characters is illustrated with extreme heavy-handedness. If that weren’t enough, in the climatic conclusion, the film romanticizes suicide and basically makes the “freedom” found in this act to be the equivalent of the freedom associated with the abolition of slavery. So that’s not the best.
Cloud Atlas isn’t all bad. It is beautifully shot and the visuals are truly exquisite. The score is tremendous, a lock for an Oscar nomination if ever there was one. And much of the acting is excellent. Hanks is great, as always, and for perhaps the first time, I really enjoyed what Sturgess brought to the table. I was extremely impressed with Hugh Grant who receives little screen time and plays a dramatically different character in every story and yet leaves a real impression in each of them. Above all, I commend the Wachowski’s and Tywker for attempting to do something unique and fresh during an era of Hollywood that seems to embrace the safe. There’s definitely nothing safe about this movie and its daring is unquestioned. But between its absurdly excessive runtime, its uninspired dialogue, and the convoluted, preachy nature of the story (not to mention the sound mix which was surprisingly poor), in my book Cloud Atlas stands as an extremely ambitious misfire.
Cloud Atlas Directors: Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tywker Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James D'Arcy, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent Rated: R (language, nudity, sexual situations, violence, a few scenes of gore) Recommended For: Film nerds, 16+