Pacific Ocean, 1849. London, 2012. Cambridge, 1936. Neo Seoul, 2144. San Francisco, 1973. Big Isle, 106 Winters After the Fall. Wait, when am I? Where am I? Hang on, let me look that up in my cloud atlas. I kid Cloud Atlas, the movie so nice they directed it thrice—“they” being Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. “Cloud Atlas” actually refers to the cloudy overlap of humanity, the transmigration of souls. Everything is connected, don’cha know (haven’t you seen Crash? or Babel? or 360?). To illustrate the universality of human nature, the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and Tykwer (Run Lola Run) triple- and quadruple- and quintuple- and sextuple-cast their film like a stage adaptation of a sprawling novel.
Indeed, Cloud Atlas is based on a sprawling novel, David Mitchell’s crazy-ambitious 2004 tome. But tell filmmakers a book is “unfilmable,” and them’s fightin’ words. So now we have Tom Hanks as a tattooed goatherd mumbling pidgin English in post-apocalyptic Hawaii (among five other roles); Halle Berry getting her Pam Grier on as a street-smart, well-coiffed, wide-eyed, ready-for-action reporter (among five other roles); Jim Sturgess as a 22nd Century Korean Keanu Reeves (don’t ask—among six other roles), and so on: Halle Berry in whiteface! Hugo Weaving in drag! Oh, the humanity, if you (wink) know what I (wink wink) mean.
Admittedly, there’s a certain conceptual cleverness in the casting stunt, which translates theme and saves money on actors, while flattering them no end. But in practice, the wigs and makeup and accents and tics become a comical distraction to a movie that very badly wants to be taken seriously. Very badly. But Cloud Atlas winds up just being very bad, albeit in ways that are eminently quotable (I swear Berry says, “You have to do whatever they can’t not do”).
Yes, your mileage may vary as you globe-trot with Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, and more. Bae and Sarandon, both great actors, seem tragically submerged in the nonsense here, but the Englishmen salve the picture with what resonant emotion (mostly in Wishaw and D’Arcy’s homosexual, though not-so-gay romance) and comic energy (Broadbent and Grant’s fraternal farce) can be mustered around the ham-handed direction, trust-me-you-need-a-politically-correct-racial-adjustment storytelling (despite the slanty-eyed yellowface), and yes-we-can sermonizing ("What is an ocean but a collection of drops?").
Some will find all this deeply moving, hugely impressive, dazzling and/or mind-shattering. But I’ll wager that most audiences will find it like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of Pretension, with a giant slab of ham but no commercial breaks. The Wachowskis and Tykwer are determined to make you understand eternity, and in that and only that, they succeed: by the time you get to the film’s endless series of endings, you’ll feel as if you’ve lived lifetimes.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]