Writing about Cloud Atlas is a bit like trying to explain a dream. There are intense flashes of visual memory, the recollection or characters, but when you try to make sense of it all, the straw dog blows quietly to pieces.
I will start by saying this; I wish I had read the book. I imagine the celebrated 2004 David Mitchell novel would have served as a trusted map (or atlas ... ) to navigate the often incomprehensible twists of story. By all accounts, the novel's language contributes to its triumph; a component lost when you take Cloud Atlas off the page.
The story of Cloud Atlas epically spans hundreds of years and six plot lines. There is a segment which takes place in 1849 as an ailing lawyer travels by sea from East to West; there is a plot line revolving around a broke homosexual composer living in the 1930s; there is a 1970’s journalist investigating scandal at a nuclear power plant; and in our day and age, 2012, a publisher is kept in a nursing home against his will. Then, there are two story lines which occur in the distant future: one in Neo Seoul where a genetically made fast food worker, named Sonmi 451, starts a rebellion. And finally, a post-apocalyptic, inter-planetary, tribal future where Sonmi is worshipped as a deity. If you’re confused now, just wait until you see the movie.
In 164 minutes the film flits incessantly back and forth between these plot lines, attempting to weave them all together through thematic links, voice over, a comet shaped birthmark, and the continuous wrestling with life’s biggest questions – benevolence, free will, power, and the meaning of it all.
The film is written and directed by the Wachowski siblings along with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), with the Wachowskis directing the 1849 episode and the two future story lines, and Tyker directing the other three. The split in filmmaking extends to the crews as well with separate cinematographers, costume designers, and make up and production crews depending upon director – it is no wonder the film often feels like many different films forced together. This is most notable in The Marigold Hotel-esque 2012 segment, a storyline that provides a welcome dose of reality but when viewed alongside the other segments is decidedly confusing in tone.
While the crews are divided, the actors remain the same across all six of the segments with stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent playing as many as six different roles – roles that span different genders, ages, and races. Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon are also notably present, and though largely unrecognizable – due to make up – hat’s off to Grant for finally emerging from his rom com malaise.
The recycling of actors (aside from being what I imagine to be an actor's delight) underscores the two most prominent narratives of the film: the idea that history is one continuously evolving story, and the notion of reincarnation and the sharing of Karmic souls. Undoubtedly lofty ideas, in a film that really does try to match them.
All of these pieces of Cloud Atlas never fully come together. Even the recycled actors component, which begins as exciting, ultimately feels kitschy. The incomprehensibility of both the plot line, and actors (Tom Hanks is virtually indecipherable in each of his extremely accented characters) adds to this fragmented experience. At times, the film recalls Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life both in scope, as well as in it's absolute disregard for audience experience.
The ambition of Cloud Atlas is cosmic in scope; in just under three hours we visit different times, different worlds, and are asked to ponder life's biggest questions. But, the problems with the film are decidedly earthbound in nature; the acting, the writing, and most of all the directing, are ultimately what sink this ship.