Let’s cut to the chase, because this is print, and there’s so much going on in Cloud Atlas that we might run out of space before we even get going. It’s got big-name directors and even bigger-name actors, who play multiple parts in six different interconnected stories that span centuries and locations. Yeah, that’s big.
So, here’s some context. The filmmakers who made The Matrix and the unfortunate sequels—aka the Artists Formerly Known as the Wachowski Brothers, currently known as Andy and Lana Wachowski—teamed up with Tom Tykwer, the guy who made Run, Lola, Run, to adapt David Mitchell’s epic book into an epic film. “Epic” is a word that’s tossed around liberally these days, but with Cloud Atlas, it’s appropriate.
The film—opening Friday, Oct. 26—spans centuries, runs almost three hours and features stars like Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Keith David and Hugh Grant, collectively playing dozens of roles. It’s a staggeringly ambitious project and a makeup artist’s dream (though there’s an over-reliance on bulbous fake noses), and it holds up and entertains, even if it isn’t as profound as it aspires to be. In Argo, characters regularly tell each other to “Argo fuck yourself.” The good news with this film is that you’re never thinking, Cloud Atlast it’s over.
This really is a brilliant idea, though the first hour feels somewhat gimmicky, as we try to sort out what’s going on in each story, who’s under all that makeup and how the players are connected to one another. There’s a lot to keep track of, too. There’s the lawyer in the 1840s being poisoned by his doctor while he’s trying to trade for slaves. The young, gay composer being taken advantage of by his superior at the turn of the 19th century. The journalist in 1973 facing a hit man after digging too deep into a nuclear-power scheme. The present-day publisher who finds himself committed to an old-folks home. The clone in a future Seoul who becomes the voice of freedom. And the post-apocalyptic world in which two people from extraordinarily different backgrounds come together to shape humanity’s future.
Almost any one of those would be enough for its own film, and that’s why Cloud Atlas is a fucking monster. It’s a monster worth watching, though, at least once, because the filmmakers tie together all of the stories in ways that are easily accessible. The fact of the matter is that while some grand intellectual three-director trifecta may have been envisioned, Cloud Atlas is pop entertainment. It’s often thrilling, frequently beautiful and occasionally courageous. It is not, however, all that deep, despite trying to be about the nature of reincarnation, fate and paying it forward. That said, it’s thoroughly entertaining, and though I reflexively checked the time right around the 90-minute mark, I found that it rarely drags; for the most part, it held my interest.
What I wrestled with, though, was the notion that the filmmakers had tried, unsuccessfully, to create something that is so much more than the sum of these six parts. Is it a problem that the deep thoughts these guys had when they read the book are expressed in easily digestible concepts? I don’t think so. The film’s psychology is little more than self help dressed up as something important, and you really have to let go of the idea that you’re going to come away with some sort of life-changing epiphany.
This works to the movie’s advantage. Had the filmmakers not had ambitions of grandeur, the movie would have no soul whatsoever, even though it’s a simple one. I don’t think Cloud Atlas is a great film, but it certainly is epic, and, these days, that’s something you don’t see every day.
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