Cloud Atlas (2012) / Drama-Sci Fi

MPAA rated: R for violence, language, sexuality, nudity, and some drug use
Running time: 172 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi,
Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenplay: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski (based on the novel by David Mitchell)
Review published November 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas 2012Cloud Atlas strikes me as a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, whereby some viewers will come out thinking it a profound and life-changing experience, while many others will be mystified as to how so much money could be thrown at such convoluted claptrap.  The film is based on the acclaimed, best-selling novel by David Mitchell of 2004, which had been viewed as unfilmable at the time, though it more or less works as a film as written and directed by the American team of the Wachowski (I can't say brothers anymore, can I?) siblings (Speed Racer, The Matrix Revolutions), and veteran German director, Tom Tykwer (The International, Perfume).

Cloud Atlas features a sizeable all-star cast, with most of them playing multiple roles, sometimes changing genders or races, throughout various times in history (and in the future).  It would be difficult, and quite tedious, to relate each era and scenario, as well as which actors play which characters, so I will try to stick to the gist of how the film plays out. 

The narrative skips forward and backward in time, and only fills in just what's going on through catching wind of the dialogue regarding past lives.  From the era of slave ships, through the 20th Century, and into the distant future, the film features souls reincarnated, as evidenced by the use of the same actors in multiple roles, as humankind struggles between those who fight for love with those who seek to prey on their fellow man. 

It's quite confusing for a good length of time for those who haven't read the book (the film slices the various segments of the book significantly) or heard about the film, so prepare to not quite get things for the first hour or so.  The gist of the film is of how ones acts and feelings transcend time, as what we do in one life carries over into the next.

The use of the actors in various roles is both a blessing and a curse.  While it's fun to see familiar and not-so-familiar faces in various guises, and sometimes it does take some real guess work, this also creates a level of artifice that has the effect of pulling viewers away from the scene in order to figure out, "Say, is that Halle Berry (Dark Tide, Perfect Stranger) as a male Asian doctor?, or "Is that Hugo Weaving (Transformers 3, The Wolfman) as a nurse?" 

Compounding the problems, some of the make-up jobs are largely unconvincing, making it easy to notice that there is an actor we're supposed to recognize under the prosthetics and bad teeth.  The Wachowskis and Tykwer are blessed with a good cast of actors, but they aren't able to adequately stretch into just any role.  As a result, many scenes feel uneven, phony, and confuse from the nature of the scene more than they bolster them.

While there are definitely some problems with the film, especially from a storytelling standpoint, it remains a respectable effort for its ambitiousness and lofty ideals that elevate it from being a bad film.  Eventually, the themes and motifs congeal into an interesting whole, and the ultimate message of how we should strive to exhibit tolerance for others and belief in the power of love over using people for personal gain (especially as embodied in the evil of corporations, slave owners, etc.) begins to shine through.

Still, it's a lot to take in for such sentimentality, and while there are undeniably great moments to be found for those who don't completely close their minds to the film through its obvious pretentions, the power and emotion of the film fails to register on the heartstrings, perhaps due to the constancy by which we are taken out of the story to notice the actors.  It makes you think, but rarely makes you feel, and when the film is hanging its hat on the notion that love should be something we should strive to have for one another, it really could have used some genuine emotional punch.

In some ways, Cloud Atlas feels like an expansive version of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, along with nearly all of the strengths and weaknesses of that equally ambitious (though smaller scale) attempt to compel us through a "time and space" allegory of death and rebirth.  Well, there is one more weakness with Cloud Atlas that is absent from this minor predecessor, and that is it takes nearly twice as long to get its message across, which may be just too much for some viewers to take if they are at all put off by the time-jump presentation and excessively inflated delivery.

Nevertheless, the film begs throughout for disbelief suspension, so how much you're willing to forgive its excess for the sake of the overall story will likely also be the marker by which you proclaim this high-reaching narrative piece a masterpiece, a truly unwatchable mess, or someplace in between.  Ironically, the message of tolerance and open-mindedness will likely only be delivered to those who already practice it for this imaginative, philosophical film.  As far my point of view, I'd rather see a film like Cloud Atlas, which goes big and falls short, than just another film made by people content to not try at all.
Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo