"Cloud Atlas" Crashes Down To Earth

“Cloud Atlas” is a nasty little parlor trick, designed to trick its audience into thinking they’ve seen something groundbreaking. In fact, it breaks all the wrong ground, setting a new (and impressive) bar in narrative incoherence while basking in all its critic-proof glory. The built-in answer to all criticism of “Cloud Atlas” is, of course, “you just didn’t get it.” The Wachowskis (joined by co-writer/director Tom Tykwer) are back to the same place they were with the “Matrix” sequels. They’ve been creatively crippled by the revolutionary visuals of “The Matrix” (and, to a lesser degree, the underrated “Speed Racer”) in the sense that they have nowhere left to go – or, more generously, nothing left to prove. Their passion for the source material (a novel by British author David Mitchell) isn’t in question, but the telltale signs of filmmaking burnout are all on display. When you’ve got nothing in particular to say, it’s easy to distract and dissemble. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have challenged us to solve their Rubik’s Cube – but not before smashing it into a thousand pieces.

The film is a collage of six different stories all featuring the same actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and others. Each narrative is separated by time and space but intertwined by its cast and themes of love, freedom, equality, and spirituality. Some of the characters are relics of the past living in the future while others are destined for better things in other lifetimes. Although I haven’t read it, the novel was apparently neatly structured, the six stories nested together in a manner that formed a relatively concise narrative web. The connections between characters were implied rather then spelled out – Mitchell wisely decided to leave this up to the readers’ imaginations. In this case, it seems as though the material would have been much better off left on the page.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to completely circumvent the logic of the book. Instead, they cut furiously back and forth between stories without rhyme or reason, leaving me to wonder if they’ll eventually release the completed footage and allow fans to create their own edits. Since the picture already comes off as choose-you-own-adventure-lite, this strategy would signify at least a little concern for audiences. Even worse, these boneheaded narrative choices all but mandate that all the actors play multiple roles, which is absolutely uncomfortable and borderline insensitive at times. Watching Jim Sturgess pretend to be Asian (complete with facial prosthetics) or Hugo Weaving cavort across the screen as a heavyset female nurse is embarrassing for everyone. Unsurprisingly, the make-up is unconvincing, and it doesn’t help that we’re supposed to believe such familiar faces in innately alien get-ups.

Predictably, America’s favorite everyman, Tom Hanks, is out of his element to an alarming degree. Beneath layers of make-up – and the usage of a dialect that’s curiously similar to that of a 19th century minstrel show – is an actor that’s not quite sure what he’s gotten himself into. If you were annoyed by Eddie Murphy’s prosthetic-laden racial stereotypes in films like “The Nutty Professor” and “Norbit,” I can’t imagine why you’d give this nonsense a pass. Halle Berry fares a bit better than Hanks, but she’s given the better and more streamlined role(s) of the two. The rest of the cast ranges from good (Broadbent) to completely stilted (Sturgess), but it would be unfair to lay blame at the feet of these mostly capable actors. Likewise, the production values are stellar (if not breathtaking), which makes the film an easier watch than it might have been, even at close to three hours.

Even so, it’s not hard to pinpoint the reasons “Cloud Atlas” is such a debacle. This inherently difficult material was made so much more cumbersome than it needed to be and the undercurrent of mean-spiritedness really clashes with the purported messages of love and tolerance. The violence is gratuitous and the subjugation of certain characters is overcooked yet unsatisfying. In the end, viewers will take precisely what they want from the film. It will undoubtedly speak to some while offending others, but in addition to its fragmented design, it’s probably meant to polarize. In that respect, it does exactly what it sets out do. I had no use for it, but some will find an immense achievement in this piece of work – even if they have to cover their critical eye in the process. This is the Bermuda Triangle of sci-fi – where logic and clarity vanish without a trace.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: October 26, 2012
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Screenwriter: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)