Six different historical epochs are interwoven to tell a story of humanity’s pursuit of righteousness. I must admit I had to be ambiguous in that description because I honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of this movie. In an effort to be more specific, I looked up the official synopsis which reads, and I quote, “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” I question whether the person who wrote that nonsense actually saw the finished product because that outline is far from evident after watching this production.
Cloud Atlas is an epic adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski clearly think they’re making some grand statement about the nature of mankind. The movie is made up of different parables from the past to the future that ostensibly relate man’s inhumanity to man. As a complete work, the six stories are mildly interconnected as a whole, but evaluated on their own merits, the individual tales are rather simplistic. Surely their purpose is to promote an idea more intellectual than some people are good and others are bad. But that’s the clichéd moral Cloud Atlas tells over and over throughout its massive length. Each one unfolds like a dumbed down version of a better movie. For example, it’s not enough that a book publisher and his fellow patients are trying to escape from a mental institution. We’re also presented with Hugo Weaving dressed up in drag to look like Nurse Ratched to further the homage. I won’t spoil the other 5 (or more) films this rips off. That’s half the fun. Cloud Atlas is undeniably a visually stunning work that utilizes superior production design and makeup to present a portrait of society. Rarely has superficial embellishments been utilized so beautifully to “cloud” a story so inherently shallow.
In a story that demands an emotional connection, the narrative is sorely lacking in character development. Give that there are 6 parts, that leaves roughly 30 minutes per episode. In the original novel, these adventures were told chronologically allowing enough moments to develop feeling for the people. However in the film, the pieces are thrown into a cinematic blender where we’re only given brief glimpses before moving on to the next story as we cycle through each tale over and over through distinct time periods and people. One key character commits suicide for example and I felt nothing. We seem to start in the middle often without much exposition and leave at random junctures. The effect is to often muddle their innate simplicity by constantly introducing a new plot before the old one has a chance to flourish. The historical eras might be grouped by similar themes, but the picture suffers from the chopping. 40 minutes into the movie, having switched focus several times, the results were headache inducing. The ADD style of the shifting storyline is a frustrating chore to follow for almost 3 hours. The overall effect isn’t innovative, it’s mind numbing.
To further complicate matters, all of the lead actors star as different individuals in each of the various sagas. This is accomplished by a dazzling array of incredible makeup, regardless of age, race or gender. Apparently each performer is portraying the same “soul” reincarnated throughout the ages. However this isn’t always clear because in some parts, the actors are completely unrecognizable. It’s a testament to the incredible talent of the makeup department. At the very least, they deserve an Oscar nomination if there‘s any justice. Halle Berry as the wife of a Belgian composer, a white woman, and as a male Korean doctor in the future, are both a marvel of modern makeup.
Cloud Atlas is a beautiful fiasco. It’s impressive production design and ambitious scope fall apart under the weight of an unwieldy and largely incoherent narrative. Had the account been told from beginning to end, from past to future, this would have made more sense. However that decision would not have rendered the parts any more interesting. I suspect the decision to chop the chronicles up into an ever fluctuating storyline is an unsophisticated attempt to make it seem more complex. In fact, the dizzying time shift jumping makes things seem convoluted. Its constantly changing art direction impressively creates wildly divergent eras that are dazzling to look at but emotionally hollow. Add that the frequent star turns by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving et al, popping up in the various stories as miscellaneous characters is distracting. I will concede I had fun playing “guess the actor” though. It may be an impressive display of makeup, but it does nothing to increase our sympathy. As I am unfamiliar with the source novel by British author David Mitchell, the film may hold more interest for fans of the original text. Alas, with apologies to Dave Eggers, Cloud Atlas is a heartbreaking folly of staggering incoherence.