Cloud Atlas is, if nothing else, ambitious. Clocking in at just under three hours, it actually earns that length (unlike a lot of recent bloated movies) because it tells six related stories spanning a time of half a millenium, ranging from a 19th century slaving ship to a 24th century post-apocalyptic tale. It uses a small group of actors to play multiple roles in the various stories and the tagline is that all these stories are connected.
I liked Cloud Atlas quite a bit and intend to watch it again. In time, I may grow to love it. But, for right now, I admire it more than like it. I feel it falls just a bit short of its lofty ambitions.
The biggest problem is that the connections between the six stories seem kind of weak. My understanding is that the book has nested stories, where each one is being read or watched by those in the next story, so that it becomes a story within a story within, etc. six times. The movie seems to be trying to do something grander and more imaginative: have the stories play off of each other or feed each other in a karmic sense so that we feel we are seeing the same souls interact as they try to reach a glimmering future. But … and maybe I need to watch it again … I felt the connections were between the stories were tenuous at best. Doona Bae and Jim Sturgess are lovers in three of the stories, but this isn’t really revealed until the end. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry only interact in two of the stories and their connection seems tenuous. The birthmark seems to link the six protaganists — Adam, Robert, Luisa, Timothy, Sonmi and Zachry. But their stories are different and the six actors who play them don’t seem to be playing reincarnations of the same character. The over-arching plot doesn’t seem to have the resolution and catharsis that the eloquent voice-overs promise. So, in the end, this seems less like six interconnected stories spanning 500 years than six stories juxtaposed together. I felt like one more pass through the script might have tightened those connections and made a much more emotionally deep picture.
However, although the film’s reach exceeds its grasp, it’s still a very good movie and at least it’s reaching. All six of the stories are compelling in some way. Reading through the reviews, I’ve noticed that the critics always napalm or praise different segments, never the same ones. That’s probably because all six works pretty well. Even when the script is a bit weak (the Luisa Rey sequence), the acting and directing carry it. And when the story is strong — Sonmi 451, the Pacific Crossing and Sloosha’s Crossing were my favorites — it’s very good.
All three directors do a fine job: the film is always visually and narratively compelling. The acting is strong, even if the makeup that allows the actors to change races and genders isn’t always up to par. But it is rarely outstanding. It’s fun to watch the actors slip in and out of roles (although that muddies the supposed karmic connections between the stories). And watching Hugh Grant and Hugo Waving slither through six villains is a treat. But no performance in the film really grabbed me as particularly inspired.
As has become par for the Wachowskis, there are many striking visual images: Luisa’s dizzying plunge into the river, the Abbess’s eyes changing color, the chase of Sonmi and Hae-Joo. Thankfully, the visuals are mated to good stories and good acting, so they never grow tiresome.
So, overall, a good film. Maybe, in time, a very good one. But it falls just short of greatness for me, so I have to give it an 8/10. It will probably rank as one of my Best of 2012 in the post I’ll cook up over the next few days.
You know what excited me most about Cloud Atlas, though? It hints that the Wachowskis have at least one more great film in them. The Matrix is a great film, of course. Its sequels are a bit disappointing but have their moments. V for Vendetta is a visually excellent film and has a strong narrative. Speed Racer was a commercial and critical flop that I have yet to see. But Atlas hints that they have something great in them, that their talent for visual flair an imaginative ideas is going to come together into something really jaw-dropping in the near future. Maybe it will be Jupiter Ascending. Or maybe Jupiter will stink and we’ll have to wait ten years for it. But I think there’s greatness there. And perhaps Cloud Atlas is where we’ll say we first saw it.