I emerged from Cloud Atlas with the sense that someone fed me roofies, violated my brain and dumped me on the interstate wearing someone else’s underwear. The film throws a pretentious shit storm of barely coherent ideas at us with the solemn smugness of a C-average philosophy student. It clearly believes in its own profundity, and brazenly crams that belief down our throats until we cry uncle. For nearly three hours, I sat dumbfounded at the audacity, like the audience at the end of “Springtime for Hitler.” Its epic collapse stands as a strange achievement in and of itself, for only true visionaries can produce something so irresistibly horrible.
I blame at least some of it on the choice to cast the same actors in multiple roles – part of a Very Important Point about the immortality of the soul or some damn thing – then slather them in the worst make-up effects since Hoover. The wigs, stipple and latex cheeks break free of their handlers and launch a full-bore assault on the performers. A pair of false teeth – brazenly wearing Tom Hanks in scene after excruciating scene – leads the charge, followed by an army of blobby noses, silly beards and curiously offensive racial traits that settle over everyone like face-sucking parasites. If you look closely, you can see the actors’ eyes pleading for help behind them.
They – and the hideous masks that enslave them – work in the service of a toxic soup of a plot, adapted from a supposedly unfilmmable novel written David Mitchell. Now that they’ve filmed it, the “unfilmmable” title stands pat. It encompasses six different stories, each involving some manner of oppression and the way the protagonists transcend or succumb to it. A notary from the 1850s (Jim Sturgess) battles illness on a Pacific ship. A gay transcriber in the 1930s (Ben Whishaw) creates a masterpiece while working for a monstrous composer (Jim Broadbent). Forty years on, his lover (James D’Arcy) helps a journalist (Halle Berry) uncover a sinister conspiracy. A present-day book editor (also Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a nursing home. A clone (Doona Bae) seeks freedom and escape in a totalitarian future, and a goatherd (Hanks) in post-apocalyptic Hawaii aids a scientist (also Berry) find a forbidden temple.
The book apparently wove these tales together with delicate precision: linking each one to the next through simple devices, then letting the readers discover the deeper connections for themselves. The movie refuses to deliver anything so elegant. Instead, it rushes back and forth between storylines without bothering to properly assemble any of them. Directors Tom Tykwer and Lana & Andy Wachowski toss aside all semblance of emotional tone or humanity, instead pounding us over the head with pretension for its own sake. The nebulous connections between tales often make no sense, tossed in as afterthoughts or left deliberately obtuse (doubtless to convince us how deep and meaningful it all is).
Instead, it depends upon its role-swapping cast to show us the interconnections. The tactic backfires like a junkyard Pinto. So much hinges on the hideous make-up that we can’t get past the stunt in and of itself. You start playing Spot the Star instead of absorbing the drama… and in the process become painfully aware of everyone’s freakish overacting. Whishaw and D’Arcy more or less emerge with their dignity intact, and Broadbent does what he can, but the rest seem part of some horrible punchline. Hugh Grant as a cannibal! Hugo Weaving as Nurse Ratched! Everybody as a yellowface Asian caricature! Hanks tops it with the worst performance of his career (or six worst, depending on how you count), and may have irreparably damaged his legacy in the process. “Everyman” doesn’t mean “chameleon,” and watching him overplay every hammy moment constitutes a special torture for those of us who once thought so highly of him.
Within that morass, no coherent thought or narrative structure can escape. The editors compound it by slapping the disparate stories together like a crack-addled Muppet. We interrupt scenes in one sequence to give us moments from another, then back to the first, then on to a third, then over to a fourth… all without any clear sense of pacing, tone or human mercy. A six-minute scene thus gets pulled out like taffy over 20 minutes, and with it goes any interest in how it all comes out.
Mangling the narrative supposedly makes it easier for us to grasp the subtext, but the film’s Big Issues explode on the tarmac as well. Any sublime connections found in the book don’t survive the transition. We just get half-baked philosophizing about the struggles of man and a faux Zen message pounded into us with the subtlety of a jackhammer. This is a movie for white guys who quote Bob Marley and put Buddha posters up in their prep school dorm rooms. (Richard Gere’s gonna love it.) It’s a sham, a fraud, a pile of self-important drivel that inflicts three unwatchable hours on its audience in the fallacious belief that we’ll emerge better people as a result. I confess a certain so-bad-its-good quality in the middle of this – I’m counting the moments until RiffTrax takes a shot at it – and the production values are the kind that only $100 million can buy. That only compounds the filmmakers’ tragic belly-flop on full display for the world. As I fled from the wreckage of my screening, I actually found myself curiously grateful. The cinematic year can’t deliver anything worse than what Cloud Atlas vomits onto our laps.