“Cloud Atlas” is an ambitious, sweeping, genre-bending epic that attempts to illuminate the human experience — which makes it sound so much better than it actually is.
Yes it’s ambitious, but it feels overconfident. It’s sweeping, but bloated. The genres range from sci-fi dystopian thriller to slapstick geriatric comedy, but the juxtaposition is jarring. And while it’s difficult to fault a writer/director (or in this case, three writer/directors) for trying to find answers to some of life’s biggest questions — Are souls eternal? How are we connected with each other? What is evil? — when the credits roll, you get the feeling you’ve merely witnessed the first draft of a potential masterpiece.
There are glimmers of greatness, such as how the film explores the different manifestations of slavery through history and its inventive macabre call-backs to cannibalism. It also gives noted character actors Keith David and Jim Broadbent some room to flex their acting muscles and casts Tom Hanks against type as a series of despicable characters — yes, more please. But ultimately, “Cloud Atlas” fails to coalesce into the meaningful film it could have been because of its bizarre structure, a lack of consistent tone and some highly questionable special effects.
Let’s start with the structure. The film leaps between six different times and places, the earliest being a slave ship crossing the Pacific Ocean in 1850 and the last being a post-apocalyptic vision of warring tribes of hunter/gatherers in the 24th century. In each story, the lead actors — including Halle Berry, Ben Wishaw and Jim Sturgess — play vastly different characters who sometimes jump race and gender. Abrupt transitions between the stories are utilized to highlight recurring themes, a departure from the source material’s nesting Russian doll set-up — and a huge disservice to the audience. In the novel, you get the opening half of the first five stories in chronological order followed by the complete sixth story and then the second half of the five stories in reverse chronological order. In the film, you have no clue which tale you’re going to quantum leap to next, leaving you disoriented and seemingly negating the central conceit that the universe has a through line.
The competing tones also eat away at the cohesiveness, leaving you feeling you’re watching six semi-interesting films spliced together. Yeah, yeah, we get it — life is heartbreak one minute, hilarious the next. But when you’re asking for the audience’s trust and empathy to follow the plight of a subjugated clone who doesn’t even know she’s a human, please don’t skip to the antics of a group of senior citizens plotting a wacky jailbreak, complete with actors in drag. Furthermore, the ‘70s-era piece featuring Halle Berry as a spunky journalist presents itself as a self-aware mystery every bit as meta as “Scream,” including a character who chimes in with lines like (paraphrasing, but not much), “Gee, this is something that would happen in a cheesy action thriller!” So this was the intent?
The biggest transgressions, however, are the make-up prosthetics, which are embarrassingly bad. It makes you wonder why they even bothered casting the actors in multiple roles. “Cloud Atlas” has taken a lot of heat for “yellowfacing” (making up the Caucasian actors to look like Asians) in the Neo Seoul storyline. The offense, however, is not one of cultural insensitivity but of insulting the audience’s intelligence. Berry as an unrecognizable wizened doctor is one thing. But Sturgess, James D’Arcy and Hugo Weaving wincingly look like they’re playing "Strar Trek" Vulcans. Similarly, the attempts to cover Hanks in a series of bad fake noses and ludicrous facial hair render each of his initial appearances distracting. And the less that’s said about Berry’s hook-nosed blond Jewess, the better.
Repeat viewings may smooth out some of the film’s wrinkles, but with a nearly three-hour running time, that seems like a lot to ask. A film that is, in part, about the transcendent art of storytelling should have done a better job of, you know, telling a good story.