“Cloud Atlas” has already stirred up quite a discussion between moviegoers. It’s safe to say the film has earned its fair share of fans. But it’s also true that it has its share of detractors. To be honest I can see where people could either love it or hate it. It’s a highly ambitious picture that pulls off an incredibly clever storytelling technique. But it could also be viewed as a three-hour grind that features many of the Wachowski’s familiar self-indulgences. So how was it for me, a groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment or an epic sized disaster? Well neither, But I did find it a chore to sit through despite the things it does right.
It’s practically impossible to give any kind of brief synopsis of the plot of “Cloud Atlas”. It’s basically six individual stories that take place at different points in time. The first story is set in the 1800s and follows a young lawyer handling business for his father on a voyage across the Pacific. The second story takes place in England during the 1930s as a young unfulfilled composer is hired to help an older accomplished composer create his music. The third story is set in the 1970s as an investigative reporter finds herself in danger after uncovering a nuclear energy conspiracy. The fourth story, set in 2012, follows a writer and publisher who finds himself in debt and in deep with some local mobsters. The fifth story jumps to a futuristic high-tech Seoul, Korea where a clone is believed to hold the keys to the future. The final story leaps further into the future where mankind is left to live in a barbaric caveman-like world.
Now there’s a process to watching “Cloud Atlas”. First the audience must adjust to the fractured form of storytelling. The Wachowski’s and co-writer and co-director Tom Tykwer don’t tell the six stories separately. Instead, the movie jumps from one story to another requiring the audience to keep up. For this to work, we first have to get to know the characters. For the most part the introductions work pretty well although I did struggle to connect with some of them. Once the characters and their stories are laid out then the audience can sit back and watch things unfold. This is when the movie was most effective. In fact, I found myself completely absorbed in what I was seeing during the middle of the film. Then the audience has to piece each of the stories together, some through more obvious and straightforward connections and others through more cryptic and allegorical meanings. This is another place where I felt the film really stumbled.
I want to start with the positives. The storytelling technique employed in “Cloud Atlas” could have potentially been a disaster. Earlier I used the word ambitious and for good reason. Taking pieces of six individual stories, breaking them up, and interweaving them together while maintaining a good strong narrative is an incredible challenge. I was blown away with how well it was done in this movie. We seamlessly move back and forth from story to story and the filmmakers are able to keep total control of the narrative. Even later when the transitions seem to come quicker and quicker, the broader story never loses its sense of cohesion. It’s intelligently crafted and executed and it serves as a great reminder of the power of cinematic storytelling.
There are also some amazing special effects and spectacular cinematography. The overall visual presentation of “Cloud Atlas” gives it a true epic motion picture feel and it beautifully captures the various time periods that it dabbles in. I loved the period-perfect look of the 1800s as well as the futuristic landscapes and technologies from the later period. Every place we visit in time looks and feels perfect. It also helps to have such a superb cast involved. The movie is loaded with strong performances from actors and actresses playing multiple roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, and Jim Sturgess all do great work in bringing this complex story to life. Each play a variety of different characters in the different storylines often in heavy prosthetics and sometimes in full drag. This is a good lead-in to some of my questions and concerns about “Cloud Atlas”. I’m not certain why it was necessary to have these actors play multiple roles. I’m assuming the filmmakers felt it added a sense of connection between the stories. Or maybe there was another underlying intention that I just don’t care to figure out. Regardless, do we really need to see Hugo Weaving dressed up as a husky female nurse?
Then there is the issue with how some of the individual stories end. There are a couple that I found quite satisfying. But then there are those that feel a little too tidy and borderline conventional as well as one that’s just flat-out silly. Also I never felt as though I made the full connections between some of the storylines. The movie simply doesn’t tie them together sufficiently. Now to be fair, a movie like this almost begs to be viewed a second time. I’m certain there are little nuggets of information that I missed. But the problem is that I’m not sure I want to tackle it again and that’s in large part due to the sometimes laborious 3-hour running time. Now I don’t mind long movies, but there were stretches in “Cloud Atlas”, particularly in the first and third acts, where the film seemed to be spinning its wheels. This isn’t unusual for the Wachowskis and I had a similar problem with their Matrix series. Much like those movies, this film at times feel bloated and self-indulgent. I also found the social commentary to be obvious and heavy-handed. Even in the instances where the message is good, they sometimes come across as blatant and contrived. Now to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all familiar with the source material, but I can’t imagine it being as glaringly in-your-face as the film can sometimes be.
“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult movie to process. It can sometimes be exhilarating cinema and at other times a frustrating chore. From a technical standpoint the film is astonishing. Both the visuals and sound design are phenomenal and the ability to capture the uniqueness of each time period is quite amazing. Even more impressive is the artistry involved in the unconventional storytelling method. There’s a crisp lyrical harmony to how we’re moved back and forth from one story to the next. Unfortunately there are a host of other problems, including those mentioned above, that keeps “Cloud Atlas” from being a really good film. But I haven’t asked the bigger question surrounding this movie. What’s it really about? Is it above love conquering all? Is it about choices and the blessings or consequences that follow them. Is it about a deep interconnection that all mankind share? I’m not sure, but in the end “Cloud Atlas” is a relatively small movie hidden underneath its lavish ambition and grandeur. It’s an exercise in style over substance that has enough flaws and misguided conceits to overshadow the things it does really well. That’s a shame.