From a 19th century voyage across the Pacific to a fight for survival in the post-apocalyptic earth of the future, the six stories that are inter-cut throughout Cloud Atlas are connected by a recurrent musical theme and a sense that there may be more to human existence than that which exists between the womb and the grave.
What we thought:
Whatever you might say about the film, you can't help but admire the sheer chutzpah involved in trying to bring so ambitious and so audacious a project as Cloud Atlas, based on the acclaimed David Mitchell novel, to mainstream multiplexes.
Even at its most simplistic, Cloud Atlas is a film that, through six divergent stories of entirely different genres, tries its hand at tying these divergent threads together to create a thematic whole that deals with the karma, the cyclical nature of human existence and redemption through the reincarnation (be it literal of figurative) of the human soul. And yet, for all of this, it still plays out as a late entry into this year's summer blockbuster season.
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain may have tackled similar themes, but those films were aimed squarely at art house cinemas and film festivals. Cloud Atlas is no less ambitious and, it has to be said, no less ponderous, portentous and pretentious than those films, nor was its financing any less reliant on "independent" sources, but by keeping its eyes firmly planted on crowd-pleasing entertainment, it has ended up a far more accessible and far more enjoyable experience than either of those immensely challenging films could ever hope to be.
If nothing else then, Cloud Atlas is entirely worth the price of admission just to witness this fairly breathtaking balancing act of "highbrow" philosophical musings with "base" populist entertainment. Co-writers/directors, The Wachowskis have tried this trick before with their popular Matrix series, but, even if Cloud Atlas isn't as good a film as the original Matrix – though, needless to say, it's incalculably superior to the disastrous Matrix sequels – it's certainly more balanced over all.
For all of this though, I would be hard pressed to call Cloud Atlas a great film, let alone a perfect one. With a nearly three-hour running time, it is to its great credit that the film is seldom boring and there is demonstrably plenty to admire, even love, about the film throughout, but the Wachowskis and their partner in crime, writer/director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), have bitten off more than they can possibly chew. It would take a filmmaker of almost superhuman skills to totally and successfully pull off something this ambitious and, though they take an impressively confident run at it, Tykwer and the Wachowski's just aren't quite superhuman enough.
Cloud Atlas is still thrilling, entertaining, thought-provoking, funny and moving, it's equally frustrating, unsatisfying, silly, unevenly paced and, at times, quite badly dialogued. The six stories vary in terms of interest and the way they're cut together is at times dramatically effective, but at others, infuriatingly arbitrary. Some are also more fleshed out than others, but even if they're all given more time than one would think possible in even a three-hour film, only a few of them are truly memorable on their own terms – and in those cases you kind of want more of them.
On the one hand, we have this terrific farce about an old publisher who finds himself trapped in a retirement home that is simultaneously the film's sparkiest plotline and the one most disconnected from the rest. The entire storyline is constantly laugh out loud hilarious thanks, in no small part, to an vivacious Jim Broadbent and, had it gone on longer, it could possibly have even worked as a blackly comic Kafka-esque tale of a man wrongfully imprisoned.
On the other hand, we have something like the earliest story of a young man travelling home across the Pacific who finds enemies and allies in the most unlikely of places. It works itself up to a decent end but it's mostly dreary and unremarkable. Similarly, the tale of earth's end is marred by a plodding pace and an irritating futuristic English dialect - which makes even less sense considering that the film already translated the mostly good, but anti-climactic China-set Philip-K-Dick-esque futuristic-thriller sections into plain English when the characters would clearly have been talking a variation of Mandarin.
The big test though, is whether the various plot strands work together and form a thematic whole that does in fact deal with the big questions of life, the universe and everything. Honestly, it does and it doesn't. The use of the same characters playing different roles (incidentally, any questions about the validity of the "yellow face" controversy that has surrounded the production should quickly dissipate if you actually watch the film) nicely ties together the different stories and, better yet, the smaller details that keep on cropping up between different plot strands make the connections more intelligent and subtle than they could have been otherwise.
As for the themes themselves, while they can work on figurative or literal levels, there is a definite sense that the more you buy into the ideas of reincarnation and the immortality of the soul, the more you will buy into the film's unabashedly spiritual view of the world.
Ultimately, whether or not Cloud Atlas actually achieves what it set out to do or not has little to do with whether or not you should see it. Personally, I thought the film was far too flawed to earn more than a three-star rating, but I still admire the hell out of it and, whether you like it or not and regardless of how it ultimately does at the box office, it's clearly a must-see cinematic event – just don't forget NOT to check your brains in at the door on your way in.