An adaptation of a popular novel, with three directors splitting six stories between them, sharing a cast playing multiple characters of different nationalities, races and genders across the past, present and future, but all linking together somehow – Cloud Atlas should be a ruddy bloody mess. What is most surprising though is how, in fact, it isn’t. Oh, it has its problems, for sure, but despite a hefty running time and everything happening all at once, I was never bored, nor was I ever lost in the shifts between threads. Quite how it didn’t pick up any awards recognition for what must have been a mammoth editing task is beyond me. The flitting between tales does mean you never quite invest in the characters as much as you perhaps should, but on the flipside, it keeps the whole thing propulsive and engaging.
As with any anthology (whether told one at a time or simultaneously), you’re going to get weaker sections, and either by the nature of the material or the skill of the directors, the segments helmed by the Wachoskis don’t work as well as those directed by Tom Tykwer. They all look handsome enough, with clearly the larger chunk of the budget to play with, but none of them convincingly sell the weight of the story its trying to tell. But as all six stories are weaved in and out of each other regularly, it’s never too much of a problem to sit through five minutes of a lesser thread when another is round the corner. Telling all these tales at once also allows the film to highlight some nice parallels and motifs, yet it never feels like it is rubbing them in or being too clever-clever with it. Even so, none of the stories are good enough as individual pieces of fiction. They work more like genre pastiches or take-offs of better works, and would crumble if stretched to a full feature, so hanging them all together as one at least allows them to bounce off one another purely from an audience interest level rather than from anything as deep as its “Everything is Connected” tagline would suggest. For Cloud Atlas is an incredibly silly film too.
There’s little point wasting your efforts in trying to work out what it all means, as it would be a fruitless search for profundity in a sea of rubber noses and scenery chewing. Just enjoy it for what it is – a bunch of talented actors playing dress up. Though seemingly all cast for a specific part (Ben Whishaw the pained creative, Halle Berry the tenacious reporter, Hugh Grant the sleazy tycoon, Jim Broadbent the bumbling wally – basically whoever they appear as on the poster), they then find themselves in another role going completely against type, leading to some pretty wacky outcomes. Having everyone play everyone doesn’t really stack up as a throughline (sometimes their individual arcs mirrors characters they play in other stories, other times they don’t), but it adds an extra layer of “spot the cast member” to keep it fun (see if you can get ‘em all first time round – it’s tougher than you think!). Although Tom Hanks totally Polar Expresses himself all over the place, it’s probably James D’Arcy who turns out the best performances.
It is also very much self-aware of its own ridiculousness. Indeed, I was surprised how funny it was. The comedy is broad, sure, but there is pleasure in its many absurdities too, understanding that Hanks mangling a variety of accents, Hugo Weaving in drag, or Berry as an old Korean man is inherently goofy (and as uncomfortable the prospect of having Jim Sturgess et al “go Asian” may be – especially with the less than successful eyework – everyone gets a turn in the ‘offensive make-up chair’, so its equal opportunities stance kind of cancels everything out).
Against all odds, Cloud Atlas works, in spite of, and in certain respects because of, its flaws. It’s not a great film, or even a very good one, but there is a lot to admire and to enjoy, even in its weaker moments or poorer choices. Expect Cloud Atlas with a Chance of Meatballs, and you might be satisfied too.