I can’t say I’ve read the book that Cloud Atlas is based on, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a thematically complex novel that most people think would be very difficult to adapt to the screen. After having seen the film, I understand why. There are six stories in this one movie that span across multiple time periods and locations involving characters who seem to have some type of connection to each other. It cuts back and forth between all six stories throughout its nearly three hour runtime and leaves it up to the viewer to connect the thematic dots. It’s an intriguing movie with narrative ambition akin to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and it suffers from the same problems. Its ideas don’t always fully come together, certain narrative threads aren’t entirely finished and it thinks it’s more spiritual than it really is. Indeed, the transition from book to movie must have been a tough one, but that in no way means it is bad. When those ideas do come together and meaning manages to sneak through its sometimes pretentious demeanor, Cloud Atlas is quite fascinating and thought provoking.
Cloud Atlas is at its best when it explores the meaning of life and death and the idea that we are all bound to each other, when it explores the idea that our actions, both good and bad, affect the world around us in ways we can’t even imagine. The film explores the idea of reincarnation and karma, that the choices we make now ripple throughout time. It’s about the spiritual connection we have to each other and the world, which dictate our behavior, our actions and who we ultimately fall in love with. It’s all that and more and when these ideas aren’t shrouded behind thick ambiguity or too obviously spelled out through sometimes unnecessary narration, the film is magical.
The problem is it rarely hits that middle ground and I sometimes felt like I was putting more effort into trying to make sense of the movie than it was itself. Keeping something intentionally vague does not make it profound, which is something that the directors, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, must not have realized. Too often, particularly in the first 45 minutes or so, the film doesn’t bring its themes together. It takes so long to figure out what the hell is actually happening (unless you’ve read the book, I assume), that much of the meaning is lost. While there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work to discover the depth of the film they’re watching, there must be something that leads them in that direction. Cloud Atlas is too opaque for that to happen and it’s guaranteed to bring about wildly different analyses. It’s the type of film that film snobs will claim to love and pretend to understand.
The film further confuses its already convoluted narrative with actors playing multiple roles (most of them play six, if you didn’t guess), but each actor’s prominence differs depending on what story they’re in. One can’t help but wonder, if these characters in these different time periods are somehow connected in some way and may actually be the same people reincarnate, wouldn’t their importance to the story remain the same? Switching up which actor plays the larger role from story to story only brings about unnecessary confusion. When we learn that one character from each timeline has a shooting star in the shape of a birthmark, thus connecting their spirits on their journey through multiple lives, things begin to make more sense, but by then it’s a case of too little, too late (and too long). We’ve stopped caring, so although the narrative connection is made, the emotional connection remains missing.
Not all of its problem stem from its occasionally incoherent plot and sporadically explored themes, though. Questionable decisions continue to appear and reappear throughout the film, most notably in the timeline that takes place in what appears to be a mixture of the distant future and a long forgotten past. In this time, there is an interstellar being called a prescient who visits a primitive group of scavengers in the hopes of finding her way home. They talk in some strange half broken English dialect where they repeat certain words and phrases for no real apparent reason. Because of its assumedly futuristic setting, this was no doubt done to differentiate it from the past and present, but it simply doesn’t work. I’m sure it played better on the page, where readers could create their own appropriate context, but here, it’s ridiculous.
I’ve mostly avoided describing the story in Cloud Atlas because to do so would be a fruitless endeavor. There’s far too much going on and far too little space to discuss it, which makes me fear that my review may come off as too negative. Make no mistake, I am recommending this movie. It doesn’t suffer so much from a lack of focus as it does simply an overload of ambition, which isn’t always a bad thing. Cloud Atlas has many flaws that are all too apparent, but when it works, it’s beautiful, meditative and unique.
Cloud Atlas receives 3/5