Bewildering, pompous, scattershot, and occasionally enthralling, Cloud Atlas shapes one the most unfilmable novels of the modern age into one of the most ambitious films ever made. It’s an daring and damaged example of a movie nearly getting by entirely on creative bravado.
Equal to this degree of ambition, Cloud Atlas is exasperating, gorgeous, incoherent, and banal, an impressively mounted but emotionally stilted production with a reckless casting stunt that flirts with the ridiculous and borders on catastrophe. It chases the philosophic reflections and visual splendours of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life, but falters too quickly in its delivery.
Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) are earnest, committed, and totally lacking in self-awareness. Unfortunately, they also lack the more important ability to strike the emotional chords necessary to get a narrative this bafflingly epic – half a dozen stories across the globe in 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2321 – off the ground. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry give lukewarm performances, and ponderous voiceovers become tired, repetitive, and errantly nonsensical. It is a peculiar mismatch of substance and form, with the spectacle trying so hard to be dazzling that it loses its beating heart.
Indeed, a splicing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blade Runner, and Amadeus, combined with strong and oblique source material, sounds like an inevitable recipe for success. It doesn’t translate. Instead, Cloud Atlas resonates as a sprawling, disjointed mashup of themes, characters, ideas, narratives – a “164-minute pop song of infinite verses” – that could have been much more.
It doesn’t crash and burn, and it doesn’t reach the heavens: it falls through the sky, finds some lift, vacillates again. With dramatic machinery and scaffolding, it’s the grandest of follies, that feels, ironically, like an overlong trailer for a better, wiser film. Some may be impressed by the bigness of its efforts, but few, by the brilliance of its effects. A sort of grandiloquent Magnolia, yet without Paul Thomas Anderson, Cloud Atlas is fluid, fatuous, fascinating, and flawed beyond belief.