Cloud Atlas, based on David Mitchell’s 2004 science-fiction novel, has the makings of an epic film with overarching ideas, expansive plots, and an ensemble cast. It took three directors (Lana and Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer) willing to maneuver through and around six stories set in the past, present, and future all the while maintaining several broad themes and weaving together smaller, tinier threads. It’s ambitious and beautifully filmed, but the flaws are tremendous and magnified accordingly.
While Mitchell’s novel goes from one story to next, past then to the future, and then back again to the story that it began with, the film mixes all of the different plots together switching plots as each story moves forward. The ensemble cast which includes superstars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugo Weaving take different roles within each of the different stories — Hanks plays a corrupt doctor, a scientist turned whistleblower, and a sort of tribesman, while Berry plays a native woman, a journalist, and a researcher within the same respective plots. Reincarnation brings these people together as music is made, love is joined and then separated, and freedom fighters revolt against powerful authorities.
Many had doubts Cloud Atlas could be made because of the complexity of its source material, and those doubters get to say, I told you so. Cloud Atlas lacks cohesiveness with its seemingly disparate stories whose connections feel threadbare. It seems almost a detriment to have the same actors appear in each of the different stories because there’s a expectation that each of those characters will connect directly somehow to the fate and circumstances of their descendants. Recognizing actors even under the bad makeup becomes an exercise in distraction — How are the innkeeper and the scientist who explodes in an airplane, both of which are played by Hanks, in any way connected? Scenes and sequences are interlaced, and the movie as a whole feels like a race that begins from start to finish with cameras in each of the lanes moving back and forth. The problem with that is the audience watches several stories concurrently beginning and introducing new, but visually familiar characters, moving to the conflicts, then ending in one large simultaneous crescendo. It’s overlong and stuffed with ideas that fail to connect because the characters don’t gain enough traction, and the stories just aren’t compelling enough.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
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Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski
Written by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant