Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’ is Both a Dizzying Success and Terrible Failure
Never has so little been said with so much.
Cloud Atlas, the ambitious collaboration between The Matrix duo of Andy & Lana Wachowski and Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer, opens nationwide on Friday with a dizzying swirl of overlapping stories that cross time and space as a means of exploring the full depth of the human experience. At least that’s what the filmmakers would like you to believe.
Cloud Atlas is a tale in six parts. Each ostensibly linked to each other both thematically and tenuously through happenstance connections in each time period. The trope of multi-casting the actors as characters in each story is used as a means of strengthening that connection. Unfortunately, that’s about the only real link the filmmakers can make to unify the film’s six stories.
The first, set during the height of the California Gold Rush, follows Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess). Ewing is out seeking his fortune when he discovers enslaved people on an island in the South Pacific. On the ship’s journey home, Adam befriends a slave who’s stowed away on the ship. Adam also must deal with the devilish Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) who may be poisoning him in order to get his gold.
The second, set during the late 1930s in England, concerns Robert Frobisher, a poor musician-cum- amanuensis (Ben Whishaw) to legendary composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). The story is narrated through letters to Frobisher’s lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), whom he abandons to seek fame and fortune with the Ayrs. Frobisher finds, however, that despite whatever work he may produce, he can’t outrun his social status.
The third, set in 1970s San Francisco, is a mystery regarding the publication of a paper by the same Sixsmith many years later. The paper will blow the lid off a nuclear power plant project headed by Alberto Grimaldi (Hugh Grant) and Sixsmith attempts to share the information with journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), but is gunned down by Grimaldi’s hitman Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving) before he can. It’s up to Rey to find any remaining copies of the paper and make Sixsmith’s work public.
The fourth, set in the present, details the misfortunate adventures of Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) a vanity publisher who must run from a group of thugs after cheating them out of the royalties of one of their members (Hanks). Cavendish turns to his brother (Grant) for help, who, in turn, imprisons him in an old folks’ home run by the wicked Nurse Noakes (Weaving).
The fifth takes us to 2144, a utopian vision of the future where humans are served by robot/human hybrids called fabricants. One such fabricant, Sonmi-451(Doona Bae) is interviewed for an unknown crime. Her story, told in flashback, details the circumstances of her crime while presenting the unseen underbelly of a seemingly perfect futuristic world in bondage.
The final story pushes the film even further into the future to the year 2346, described as “After the Fall”. Mankind has gone back to a tribal state as the past of the future has given way to a post-apocalyptic world. In Hawaii, Zachry (Hanks) lives among a group of villagers who worship a statue of Sonmi-451 and spend their days avoiding a vicious cannibal (Grant). Their world is altered greatly when Meronym (Berry) arrives in a futuristic craft, attempting to reactivate a distress signal at the top of a mountain on the island where the devil (Weaving) is purported to live.
It’s a lot of story. It’s a lot of stories. The film bursts with them in a swirling mosaic of tone, style and visual narrative. We bounce from the gritty mystery of the Luisa Rey story to the sci-fi grandeur of Seoul in 2144 to the outright farce of Timothy Cavendish’s travails without time to ever stop and settle in.
It’s grand entertainment for sure, but the film lacks the unifying vision necessary for it to make its intended impact. The connections between the stories are either too loose or utterly non-existent. There are recurring themes (bondage, love, class) but none permeates every story and makes each seem superfluous in its own way rather than essential to all the other stories.
Rather than present its themes, the film relies on an excess of voiceover to tell us its intended impact. A letter written by Hanks’ character in the Luisa Rey segment, a bit of dogma spat out by Sonmi-451, Frobisher’s endless letters, they all serve as a device to tell us that we’re supposed to be watching a film about how the friendship between Ewing and the stowaway slave has a ripple effect that could lead to the salvation of man 500 years later. Even if what we’re actually watching are six short stories composed together with only passing nods to each other.
It’s a lazy method for sure, and one that shouldn’t have been necessary. With so much story, so many interesting worlds at their disposal and such an interminably long running time, you’d think the filmmakers could come up with an organic method of linking everything together that goes beyond striving to recognize which actor is drenched in makeup to play which part in each new story.
Ultimately, Cloud Atlas is a major failure in this regard. Were it not for the incessant voiceovers, it would have just been completely confusing as to why the filmmakers are presenting these stories. What they could possibly have to do with each other. Telling us certainly helps, but to rely on having to explain what they want to do while they’re doing it just shows that they were unable to accomplish their thematic goals through basic storytelling.
While Cloud Atlas fails in its attempt to present a complete realization of its themes, it does succeed wildly in its attempt to entertain. The multi-casting serves as grand fun and the Wachowskis prove again that they’re among the most visually interesting filmmakers working today, particularly in the singularly dazzling world they create of Seoul in the far future.
But at nearly three hours and with so much to take in, you’d hope that you’d be able to get something out of the film beyond the closing credits where they present just which actor was playing all of those various parts. It’s never a good sign when the biggest mystery your audience wants solved is whether or not that was Hugh Grant in that curly wig looking like Roger Daltrey.
Especially when your film is attempting to unlock the biggest mysteries of all.