From what I understand, the 2004 David Mitchell novel which the Cloud Atlas film is based on is much better than the film. Yeah it damn well better be! Nothing underscores how tragically convoluted this film is more than the Directors, Lana and Andy Wachowski lashing out at critics after its theatrical debut in October. If you thought the Wachowski-directed Matrix Revolutions was confusing, Cloud Atlas makes that film look like a Clifford The Big Red Dog story. Look, I don’t have the time to see a movie two or three times to try and pick up on all the intricacies of the plot, especially when that film is just a shade less than three hours.
The film takes place over a span of 500 years relating six separate but intertwining storylines ranging from the 1800s to the year 2321. Trying to fit these disparate pieces together, however, is laborious at best and tortuous at worst. We jump rapid fire from timeline to timeline without any cohesive flow. One moment you’re in 1930s Scotland as a young Amanuensis is working for a cantankerous old composer and the next were in the far future of Neo-Seoul where a clone joins a rebellion against the ruling class. Some of the storylines have direct connections to each other and feature older versions of the same characters while others…well you’ll likely need an atlas to figure out how to get from point B to point C. The timeline hopping makes it impossible to truly feel invested in any of the characters. When you find one you do like you’re quickly pulled away to Broadbent’s goofball turn as a present day publisher on the run from gangsters and trapped in a nursing home or Hanks’ unlikely turn as a tribal leader far after the fall of civilization and speaking in silly faux future vernacular that makes pig Latin sound eloquent by comparison. There’s no point at which you get that moment of satisfaction to see everything finally come together.
All of the cast members play multiple roles including some like Hanks, Berry, and Weaving playing a part in each of the six storylines. The problem is they are playing completely different characters as opposed to say playing a descendent of one of their earlier family members. When my cohort Rob Vaux eloquently destroyed the theatrical release he pointed out the goofball makeup. In particular, the hideous teeth worn by Hanks in the 1800s storyline that looked like those hillbilly teeth you get out of a gumball machine. The makeup reminded me of the 1965 Jerry Lewis comedy “Family Jewels” in which the comedian played six different uncles with exaggerated makeup. But at least THAT film was supposed to be funny. But I can do Rob one better…Hank’s fake teeth were nothing compared to seeing poor Hugo Weaving dressed in drag as a tyrannical nurse in a nursing home. What’s the point of having actors play different roles if those characters are not somehow connected?
Tom Hanks has been one of Hollywood’s most dependable actors for 25 years but even he cannot carry six roles over three hours, particularly when handicapped more makeup than the average dancer at Scores. Granted his parts in some of the storylines are minor but even those where he plays the central roles are uninspired. Berry fares a little bit better and her part as Luisa Rey, a 1970s investigative reporter out to expose problems at nuclear plant, is the film’s best.
The Wachowski’s quickly defended the film stating "As soon as critics encounter a piece of art they don't fully understand the first time going through it, they think it's the fault of the movie or the work of art. They think, 'It's a mess.’” Perhaps the Wachowski’s prefer muddled, cluttered, or disarray as more apt descriptions. Now all that said there are some things to like about Cloud Atlas so I can’t drop a complete failure on it. In addition to the previously mentioned performance by Berry her segment as a magazine reporter, Doona Bae’s doomed clone telling her story to an archivist was also a highlight. And if nothing else, the film often looks amazing with its sprawling vistas from the open ocean of a merchant ship on the open seas to the anime-inspired cyberworld of Neo-Seoul. You’ve got to at least tip the hat to the cinematographer.
I was hoping that the extras might be able to raise the grade up. Perhaps it would have a director’s commentary that might shed some more light on the story and perhaps point out some of the tertiary points where the segments are tied together. But alas it was not to be…the only extras we get our seven focus points totaling almost an hour. They are mildly interesting but a lot of the information is repetitive
A Film Like No Other (7:15): An overview of the film’s concepts and production challenges.
Everything is Connected (8:00): A look into the various stories and their common themes and ties.
The Impossible Adaptation (9:07): Takes a look at original novel and the adaptation process with author David Mitchell and the filmmakers.
The Essence of Acting (7:20): The cast talks about the experience of playing multiple characters.
Spaceships, Slaves and Sextets (8:08): The connection between the stories.
The Bold Science Fiction of Cloud Atlas (7:14): A look at the film’s various science fiction concepts and production design.
Eternal Recurrence: Love, Life and Longing in Cloud Atlas (7:39): A look at the film’s relationships and personal connections.