It is difficult to know what to make of a film like Cloud Atlas. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, the movie is based on a novel by David Mitchell and stars some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon. It lacks a traditionally linear plot and instead tells six distinct stories, à la Crash. Unlike the 2004 Academy Award winner, though, the connections between the characters in Cloud Atlas are far less transparent.
The first of the six disjointed narratives tells the story of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a 19th-century lawyer who encounters a stowaway slave, Autua (David Gyasi), on a voyage home from the Caribbean. The second focuses on the life of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a young aspiring composer living in the 1930s who writes letters to his gay lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy). The next tale centers on Luisa Rey (Berry), an investigative journalist in the 1970s, who encounters an aging Sixsmith (still played by D’Arcy, made up to appear older) in an elevator and attempts to uncover the conspiracies of a nuclear plant.
The fourth narrative is set in present day, where an elderly publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), hides from the cronies of his disgruntled mobster client and escapes from the nursing home where he is being held against his will. The next narrative follows an exploited clone, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), who, with the help of resistance fighter Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), tries to subvert the authorities and challenge the oppression that traditional humans in futuristic Korea have inflicted on her kind. The final story takes place in the distant future, after an apocalypse, referred to as ‘the Fall,’ destroyed much of civilization. Zachry (Hanks), a man from a primitive village, meets Meronym (Berry), a member of a technologically advanced tribe. Along the way, they encounter cannibals, discover the past and fall in love.
As the 164-minute film jumps from narrative to narrative, it is difficult not to feel confused and restless. In a film where one of the major themes is the interrelatedness of the past, present and future, trying to determine the connections between the various characters can be mentally exhausting. Some relationships are obvious, especially among the main characters, but the filmmakers pull the rug out from beneath us at times when they reuse the same actors for different roles: In a decision that has sparked ample controversy and confusion, multiple performers take on a variety of races, ages and genders as they move through the film.
I saw the decision to reuse actors as ambitious and mostly successful, in large part because the makeup work, like the visual effects, was incredible and Oscar-worthy.
Still, in film, there is such a thing as too much ambition. By cramming six miniature films into one, Cloud Atlas tries to do too much. As a result, it is unable to give any of the narratives the time and attention it deserves. Yes, it is epic. But it is also epically disappointing.