When a director is equally earnest and ambitious about a particular project, the resulting film stands a great chance of being a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for audiences, and Cloud Atlas is no exception. This adaptation of David Mitchell’s sweeping, award-winning novel was written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, and it juggles a huge cast (the majority of whom are playing multiple characters) in several different time periods in the service of a very simple moral -- be good to each other.
The intricate plot can’t really be distilled into a few paragraphs, so it’s enough to know that the film skips around without much concern for the audience keeping up; it’s not a big wave you can surf, but a giant wall of water that crashes all around you. The trio of directors flood the viewer with visual splendor and cutting-edge effects so that their homilies about how love and hate transcend time and space sneak their way in while you’re busy marveling at the images.
If the effects grow tiresome, there is fun to be had figuring out what roles the various actors play in the different time periods. The makeup team on this film should be nominated for an Oscar, and if the award were not for Best Makeup but Most Makeup, then they’d be a shoe-in. Spotting Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, and Hugh Grant in their various personas actually adds an element of fun to everything, and fun is what’s missing from much of Cloud Atlas (except for when Hugo Weaving is in drag).
While it’s always a guessing game to ponder why a particular filmmaker might be drawn to a specific piece of material, it’s hard not to think about what drew Lana Wachowski to make this as her first picture after completing gender-reassignment surgery. The movie’s dead-serious plea for tolerance and kindness is heartfelt, but it’s also painfully obvious about 45 minutes into its nearly three-hour running time. The result is a lot of sound and fury signifying a sentiment that could be printed on a fortune cookie.
Cloud Atlas is hardly the first movie to tackle these deep concepts with such a sweeping narrative, but the most recent example of something similar is Darren Aronofsky’s fascinating The Fountain. That equally ambitious film attempts to show how love knows no boundaries and leads to a perpetual rebirth that keeps the species going forever and ever. It also manages to do this with basically two characters in three settings, and in just over 90 minutes. That film is a cosmic tone poem, whereas Cloud Atlas is a behemoth that aims for the thematic weight of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the hyper-stylized look of sci-fi favorites like The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, and Metropolis.
Let there be no doubt that some people will be swept up in the film’s explosion of light, sound, and ideas and hail it as a masterpiece, but there will also be a number of viewers who reject what the Wachowskis and Tykwer are serving precisely because it’s so overblown. The trio are out on a limb with Cloud Atlas, and for an audience member either the view will be breathtaking or the branch will snap and crash the whole thing to the ground.
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