It would be silly to call Cloud Atlas a masterpiece, as some already have, because it certainly isn't that. Chalk that reaction up to festival "prisoner-of-the-moment-itis" more than anything else: a reaction that is all too common these days. At the other end of the spectrum lies an equally irrational reaction, one that dismisses it as a complete disaster. Many have already expressed this opinion as well.
Where Cloud Atlas actually falls is somewhere between point A and point Z, the precise location of which will depend largely on how much you are willing to credit the trio of directors for the boldness of their vision. Adapting a David Mitchell novel that had been dubbed "unfilmable" (this seems to be a common description of complicated novels, yet they continue to film them), Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have created a film almost unparalleled in terms of scope, concept, and theme.
There is no question that it is one of the most ambitious films I've ever seen. That it has moments of near greatness and an equal number that miss entirely seems like something that should have been expected in hindsight.
Weaving six interrelated and often thematically similar narratives,Cloud Atlas stretches from the mid 1800s to the distant future, sometimes after the 22nd Century to be semi-exact. The first story, titled "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing," follows the titular character (Jim Sturgess), an ill lawyer home on business in 1849, who finds himself aboard a ship with a stowaway slave. In 1936, "Letters from Zedelghem" is the story of a talented yet unknown musician named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who begins working as an amanuensis to an elderly composer (Jim Broadbent). Taking place in San Francisco in 1975, a journalist named Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) works with the help of a couple whistleblowers to uncover the truth behind a local nuclear power plant.
In the present day United Kingdom, an elderly publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) escapes the cronies of a gangster client only to find himself cooped up in a restrictive old folks home that he desperately wants out of. "An Orison of Sonmi-451" puts us in Neo Seoul in the 22nd Century, where a genetically manufactured clone (Doona Bae) becomes the symbol for a massive rebellion. Finally, in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic future well past the 22nd Century, a man named Zachary (Tom Hanks) helps an advanced being (Halle Berry) contact people who have left Earth to live in space.
The movie tells each story in bits and pieces, frequently jumping from one to the next over the course of the near three hour run time. This is apparently different from the book, which tells each story chronologically, and then loops back to the beginning. Since seeing Cloud Atlas, I've changed my mind as to whether or not I felt this cutting back and forth was detrimental or beneficial in the transition from the page to the screen. The source of my flip-flopping basically comes from the same fact: three of the six narratives are far more engaging than the other three. Oddly enough, the three segments I found to be the strongest (1936, 1975, and 2012) were all directed by Tykwer (the three directors claim to have collaborated equally, but these are his credited segments).
On the one hand, because these three were more compelling, I found myself wishing the film wouldn't leave them so frequently, that they would be developed a bit further. But the fact that most people will be drawn in by some segments but not others might be the precise reason why it was necessary to rotate: too much unbroken time spent with an uninteresting story could take the viewer completely out of the movie.
The segments are vastly different when it comes to tone, which is another reason that the frequent cutting feels odd at times. Going from the present day, Broadbent led Timothy Cavendish story, which plays as a comedy, to the 1970s investigative mystery, to the sci-fi action piece in Neo Seoul definitely leaves the viewer off balance. It also kills the films more emotional moments, as we don't stick around long enough to really be impacted.
Another problem on the emotional front is that the most emotional segment is probably the Hanks led, futuristic "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin After," which as you might be able to tell from the title, contains a gibberish evolution of the English language. There is no doubt that by the time 2300 rolls around, the English language will have changed. But that which was used here is stupid and often incomprehensible.
As most people are aware, the actors involved in Cloud Atlas play multiple characters throughout the film, with some actors (Hanks and Berry most notably) appearing in all six stories. This technique was thematically significant in that, although they don't necessarily play a reincarnated version of their former self, some of the characters are definitely linked over time. While some experience a bit of an evolution, others inhibit the same basic societal role from story to story. An example of this is Hugo Weaving, who is always villainous, at one point becoming a literal manifestation of the devil.
Much has been made about the makeup and costumes worn by the actors, and while I won't dwell on it too much, it's impossible to ignore. Sometimes the "disguises" are really well done, and other times they're terrible. Hanks is the most adversely affected as he appears to just be in a series of bad Halloween costumes.
Cloud Atlas has also been called racist for it's use of "yellowface," using Caucasian actors to portray Korean characters. This criticism is misguided. This isn't the only example within the film of racial or gender lines being crossed. Black actors play Caucasian characters, Korean actresses play Caucasian characters, men play women, and women play men. One of the main themes that persists throughout is the commonality of the human experience. In that, the same mistakes have been made, the same lessons have been learned throughout time, no matter who is involved. Also, like the language, we see racial lines change over time with the differences becoming less and less obvious.
In Cloud Atlas, we are told "everything is connected," and this is one of the ways that point is made. Another, more obvious way in which we see this connection is via the impact people have on those who follow them. We see Frobisher impacted by Ewing's book, Rey impacted by Frobisher's letters and his musical compositions, and Sonmi's rebellion become even more significant in the future that follows her, among other physical links. This isn't a novel concept, but some of the connections are interesting in the way they unfold.
Cloud Atlas is certainly messy. Here, the filmmakers ambition was a bit of a blessing and a curse. It's the ambition that makes the film impossible to ignore, that made me appreciate everything that was happening on screen even when I was less than enthralled. But it's that ambition that resulted in many of the more glaring problems. I highly recommend seeing Cloud Atlas even if only to fully grasp its scope. For me, it's about half of a really good film.