Beyond its unparalleled ambition, Cloud Atlas is a film that carries too little emotional heft to truly resonate. In what will easily go down as the most divisive film-going experience of the year, and potentially live on as a major cult classic, the latest project from the creators (Andy and Lana Wachowski) of The Matrix trilogy and director Tom Tykwer is a mildly exciting and willfully frustrating undertaking that quite literally shifts back and forth between the wondrous and the disconcerting. Running just shy of three hours, Cloud Atlas possess an admirable and taxing earnestness, but it’s all for not in this complicated adaptation that tells of six interlocking stories over different eras while assuming the tropes of multiple genres.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by David Mitchell, the source material appears to be the perfect match for the Wachowski’s, whose Matrix trilogy contained the same philosophical waxing and waning contained in Atlas. And while the film’s incessant themes and motifs are made clear to the viewer at every turn, there’s a resiliency at work here that makes Atlas involving for at least the first half. Harnessed portraits of oppression serve as the basis for each story in Atlas, most of which remain unusually uninviting by way of odd casting choices, poor technical decisions (mostly the horrendous makeup) and an overall lack of cohesion running through the picture.
Primarily taking on the mold of a sci-fi drama, the transitions from story to story are jarring to say the least. The film’s vignettes are as follows: A ship crossing the Pacific in 1849, the home of an elderly composer in 1936 Edinburgh, San Francisco in 1973, present day London, Neo-Soul, a fractured Korean-capital in 2144, and a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian valley and mountaintop in 2321. The eclectic cast featuring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, and Ben Whishaw are a mixed bag at best; each symbolizing general components of compassion, love, and courage set against the evolving chaos of our history. While some may be taken by the casting of Tom Hanks as one of the film’s more important characters, the actor fails to carry a presence in each of his six roles. The casting of Hugo Weaving is also troublesome, as his demon-like Leprechaun figure and masculine nurse stand out as two of the film’s worst and unnecessary characters. Among the standouts are Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Halle Berry. Whishaw’s performance and segment carries the most emotional weight, but is featured the least out of the six.
While Atlas’ thesis of individual lives impacting one another in the past, present and future is enticing, there’s very little in the way of being absorbed in the bevy of stories on display. The idea of reincarnation within each tale brings upon a negative trickle-down effect that seems to permeate throughout the entire film. Not only does Atlas strive to be problematic, but it basks in the flaws of such an epic production. One questions whether the marriage of the Wachowski’s and Tykwer was warranted in this case. Atlas is at its most intriguing when the cutting between each segment is at a rapid pace, but too often, the singular stories meander without the slightest hint of urgency or regard for emotion. And so goes Cloud Atlas, vastly unaware of its best assets, leaving us to decipher all of its indiscernible gibberish that never seems to end. It must not be seen for its mind-bending scope, but for its failed juggling act that winds up being the true spectacle.