“Cloud Atlas” is multi-layered epic, telling no less than six separate narratives concurrently, each featuring the same characters in different temporal incarnations.
It’s strikingly original, sumptuous to look at, and incredibly ambitious.
It’s also extremely long, mildly incoherent, and not one half as profound as it would like to be.
Certainly it’s a commendable film, but “Cloud Atlas”‘ reach far exceeds its grasp. Respect needs to be paid for aiming so high, and due to its lofty aim, the end result is a high calibre movie. But this film illustrates why more points are awarded for routines with higher levels of difficulty… namely because they’re so much harder to pull off.
Describing the plot of “Cloud Atlas” is futile, mainly because there are six of them. Right from the opening moments of the film, “Atlas” tells six different narratives, all at the same time. It’s unfair to call any of them flashbacks or flash forwards, its more accurate to say that they run simultaneously, and the movie shifts gears rapidly in between each, imparting the sense that they’re all happening at the same moment. In order of how they would occur on a linear timeline, the six are:
- A story set aboard a mercantile ship during the era of slavery.
- A tale of a young, homosexual musician who finds work transcribing music for a renowned composer.
- The investigation a journalist undertakes, trying to uncover the secret at a local nuclear power plant.
- A portrait of a publisher who gets into financial trouble and winds up put in a nursing home.
- The story of a cloned waitress who supersedes her programming.
- The adventures of a post apocalyptic survivor who leads a futuristic woman to an ancient landmark.
None of these stories can be classified as the central tale. Some are given more screen time than others, but personally, I didn’t feel that the film favored any of them in terms of import. Some lend themselves more to action sequences than others, while others carry more emotional weight, but all are given relatively equal amounts of screen time. Given the vast differences in their makeup, it’s a safe bet that audiences will find themselves partial to certain stories above others, and/or disliking some of the stories and resenting when its their turn onscreen (mine was the gibberish laden post-apocalyptic tale, where the dialect is all… abbrevi’ rid’ andsome wanna talkem like Lang-talk be ‘vented new. LOL).
Each of these tales are as disparate as they sound. The common thread between them all is that the cast remains the same for all six stories. Through the magic of old age makeup, contact lenses, prosthetics, false teeth, contact lenses, hair dye, hair styles, skin color makeup and drag, the cast of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, David Gyasi, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw and Keith David play role after role in tale after tale. Occasionally their appearances in a given segment may be a brief cameo, while at other points, they’re the central figure. It’s amusing to spot them, and at times, it’s challenging. I’ll readily confess that I struggled on a couple of identifications for a while. At other times, the effort to mask them is flat-out comical, resulting in bad noses or silly teeth.
The occasional makeup gaffe is the only area where the production values can really be questioned though. Otherwise, this is a top-notch big budget spectacle. How in the world they got it done for only $102 million is beyond me, perhaps all the overlapping story lines gives it a much bigger scope than it actually has. Regardless, it’s obvious that this is a film with a solid investment behind it. The effects in the effects laden stories are fantastic, and in the period piece stories, the costumes are exceptional.
The elephant in the room is the runtime. Clocking in at a massive 2 hrs, 43 minutes, “Cloud Atlas” may make audiences feel as though they’ve been through several lifetimes watching it.
I can handle enormous movies, certainly. But “Cloud Atlas” isn’t structurally, narratively, or philosophically accessible enough to justify its massive scope. I’ll concede that perhaps with multiple rewatches, or for people previously familiar with the material (It’s based on a 2004 novel by David Mitchell), the subtle connections between the tales will become evident. To me, fresh to the material, it appeared that there was no connection (or at best, in a couple of cases, the barest of connections) between story lines. Obviously, yes, these are the same souls involved in playing out scenes time after times through the course of their lives. Yet… there’s no karmic penalty to be seen. In one story, a character may be a villain, and in the next, a hero. The actual events of each story bear little impact on the events of the next. Lip service is paid to connecting one to the next, but it’s tenuous at best in at least half of the tales. Prior stories make their appearance in successive chapters, but rarely in a way that rises to the level of driving events. In fact, a good argument could be made that the film is insinuating that time is completely illusory and all these stories occur simultaneously… with the later stories impacting the earlier ones. It’s as if “Cloud Atlas” has given us a six piece puzzle where only a couple of pieces fit together. The movie, I believe, wants to illustrate how a singular strand can be traced back through generations, and how unknowingly, or smallest actions can have a butterfly effect on the future… but the thread is so faint at times that I’d have to classify the connection to be a “stretch”.
Finally, for me, the film doesn’t deliver a philosophical payload worthy of its grand, elaborate trappings. Aside from the fact that it espouses reincarnation, and karma to a degree (although the karmic aspects were poorly fleshed out, in my opinion, see above), it doesn’t seem to have much to say about that. Perhaps I was too busy keeping track of all the running narratives to read into themes, but it felt to me that the movie came right out and literally SAID the things it wanted to say, and beyond that, it was simply a multi-levelled action movie.
Which, frankly, is a rarity, and thus it still earns a recommendation from me. It’s long, it’s not as “Deep” as it portends to be, and with six running narratives, you’re bound to encounter a plot or two that doesn’t appeal to you. But it’s also lavish, original, and extremely ambitious… more than enough to earn a passing grade from me. Multiple viewings and subsequent analysis may reveal more than I give it credit for in my initial viewing, but I’m not that eager to undertake the effort at this point in time.