Cloud Atlas is the kind of film that would take multiple paragraphs to provide a proper plot synopsis for. Told over the course of six distinct periods, starting with the mid the 1800’s and reaching a very distant future, Cloud Atlas is an ambitious medley of tall tales and genres. These six separate stories, although disparately distanced by time, fluidly slip in to one another. The idea behind this madness is that an act in 1850 causes a ripple effect through the course of time and catapults a revolution. Written and directed by the team of Lana and Andy Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas boasts a parallel structure, one that audaciously cuts from story to story at a frenetic pace. Side by side, we’re engaged in the segments until they collapse onto themselves and reveal their impact on the film at large. The choice of structure is just one of the film’s biggest gambles. Its other bold move revolves around actors playing six or seven characters, with some of them even switching genders and races. Pulling this off is an impressive use of makeup and acting.
Based on this notion alone, it’s clear that the Wachowskis and Tykwer are genuinely dead set on telling a universal tale about the irrevocable connection between the past, present, and future. Never has there been a film this bold in its structure, and never has there been a film so dedicated to crafting six different stories that play to a variety of genres and tones. For such risks alone, I will constantly praise Cloud Atlas as a piece of bravura filmmaking. Yet, for all of its ambition and determination to deliver a film brimming with life and varying tropes, Cloud Atlas feels disappointingly dissonant and intermittently tedious. The film certainly moves along at a brisk pace, which is surprising for a film that nearly clocks in at three hours, but only three of the film’s six segments resonate as intended. The meeker plot threads, two of which prominently feature Tom Hanks and Halle Berry as lovers reincarnated, and the other featuring Jim Broadbent partaking in a nursing home caper, left me yearning for more.
Blame is found within the film’s structure, which violently whisks the audience from moment to moment, leaving very little time with the characters to forge a connection. But the biggest difference is that the aforementioned three tales are simply not as rich or as tremendously acted as their contemporaries. The heart of the film, and arguably one of the finer stories found in film this year, is Sonmi-451’s (Bae Doona) uprising from a futuristic servant to a self-aware political symbol. The rebirth of Sonmi is both harrowing and uplifting, as it features an impending apocalypse and a romantic angle that pays multiple dividends. Within Sonmi’s tale, one can see the Wachowski’s and Tykwer reaching their desired heights. It’s a multifaceted tale that not only speaks to the human spirit, but also the film’s running theme of individuals resetting the world’s rules. When coupled with the film’s tremendous theme, Sonmi’s tale masterfully entrances the viewer and evokes a multitude of emotions.
Sonmi’s fate is only matched by the plight of Robert Forbisher (Ben Whishaw), a troubled musical genius seeking the path to his first composition while reconciling the physical distance between himself and his lover, Rufus Sixmith (James D’Arcy). Where Sonmi’s adventure is futuristic and visually buoyant, Forbisher’s story is akin to a searing drama where love and death are beautifully intertwined. The level of emotion germinating within both stories is inescapable, and I wish such magnificence could be found in the rest of the film’s various arcs. Momentarily they are, but they fail to match the raging power of Sonmi and Forbisher, two breathtaking characters that probably deserve their own narrative. And this is where I stand on Cloud Atlas: it’s a fleeting film that has moments of brilliance and visual decadence, but it can’t entirely overcome its underwritten plot threads. Maybe I’ll learn to appreciate the film in time, but as it stands now, Cloud Atlas is a genuinely ambitious film that takes flight for only half the time.
Yet, even though the film left me unfulfilled, it has seemingly captured the imagination of a few film enthusiasts. Some have even gone on to say that Cloud Atlas is one of the best films of the year. I wholeheartedly disagree, but the polarizing nature of the film suggests it can sneak up on a viewer and lay claim to their heart. Despite my weak score, it very well may serve you best to see Cloud Atlas and experience it for yourself.