“Cloud Atlas”: Head in the Clouds
Published on October 25th, 2012 | by Matt Cohen1
“Cloud Atlas” opens nationwide on Friday, October 26.
Running time: 172 minutes; Rated R.
Adapted from David Mitchell’s sprawling 2004 novel, “Cloud Atlas,” directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, is a rare kind of epic that only comes around once every so often—a film that aims so high that it’s almost doomed by its own earnestness from the get-go. But make no mistake—while the film’s missteps ultimately turn it into a bloated, convoluted, and confusing fiasco, it’s still a staggeringly ambitious cinematic endeavor with a strikingly gorgeous visual palette. The film’s main failures are in its attempts to connect its six different stories set in six different eras through the vaguely defined thesis that souls are bonded to one another throughout time. As such, the filmmakers struggle to find effective ways to convince us that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
The film begins in a remote tropical village, 106 winters after the fall of man, in which a scarred, aging, and derelict Tom Hanks begins telling a story of “all the voices tied up into one.” The film then begins to introduce each of the six storylines that comprise “Cloud Atlas”’s sprawling narrative structure: Jim Sturgess as a lawyer in the 1800s, traveling the Pacific Ocean, who comes to realize the immorality of slavery when his doctor (Hanks) slowly poisons him; Ben Whishaw as a young, reckless composer in 1930s Belgium whose masterful composition is at risk of being stolen by Jim Broadbent, his much more accomplished collaborator and employer; Halle Berry as a tenacious reporter in 1970s San Francisco who becomes a whistleblower for a conspiracy involving an oil company and a nuclear power plant; Broadbent (again) as an aging literary agent in present-day London who is forced into a retirement home against his will; Doona Bae as a genetically engineered “fabricant” in 2144 “Neo”-Seoul who has a life-affirming revelation that sparks an intergalactic revolution; and the aforementioned story that takes place after the fall of man, in which Hanks—a member of a post-apocalyptic mountain tribe—leads a much more technologically advanced Berry on an expedition of unknown purpose. Unlike Mitchell’s novel—which establishes these stories one after the other until each reaches an appropriate climax, and then resolves them in reverse order, like taking a walk down a flight of narrative stairs—the film instead weaves the stories together like a quilt, unevenly bouncing back and forth, and then stitching them together using a Terrence Malick-esque metaphysical voiceover. Like most of the film, it’s clever in conceit, but its effect is to create an unfocused ebb and flow that’s difficult to follow at times.
In Mitchell’s novel, the Cloud Atlas composition is described as a beautifully arranged “sextet with overlapping soloists,” and serves as just one of several clever and effective literary devices for tying together the characters in the six storylines. To string the stories together in the film, however, different and less effective narrative devices are used, and they unfortunately distort and cloud the sprawling narrative—most prominently in the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s decision to have the same actors play different characters across the six storylines. Although this casting decision is effective in some instances, it mostly comes off as a huge distraction, thanks in part to goofy prosthetics and makeup that transform the actors’ appearances from storyline to storyline in terms of age, size, gender, race, and (most amusingly) facial hair. But when “Cloud Atlas” does hit its strides, it’s an immensely satisfying cinematic experience. The Wachowskis continue to prove, in the futuristic segments they directed, that they’re today’s most illustrious visual innovators. The “Neo”-Seoul story is as thrilling to watch—with its industrious, gritty, and neon-soaked depiction of a futuristic mega-city—as it is to follow, and the “Fall of Man” segment that bookends the film paints a lush, naturalistic portrait of a post-apocalyptic society borne back ceaselessly into its own eons-old primal past. Tykwer, who directed the segments in the past and present, shines particularly in Broadbent’s caper story as a retirement-home runaway (which is easily the film’s most lighthearted and earnestly enjoyable segment).
Ultimately, however, what plagues “Cloud Atlas” most isn’t its bloated narrative or ill-conceived actor-character dynamic, but rather its lack of a basic story arc. The six interweaving stories are thrown together so hastily that the Wachowskis and Tykwer don’t give any of them a chance to boil. Instead, a series of climaxes are thrown at us rapidly, one after another. There’s no sense of build-up or resolution, just an onslaught of crescendoing moments, loosely tied together by the same actors playing multiple characters. That’s not to say “Cloud Atlas” is a total bust; it’s enjoyable at times, but ultimately it’s more successful in conceit than in execution. It’s easy to see the passion and ambition that the Wachowskis and Tykwer have put into “Cloud Atlas”; the film is gorgeously shot, and each segment works individually; but taken as a whole the film buckles under the pressure of its own massive weight.