There’s so much flash and grandeur in Cloud Atlas that it’s difficult at first to see how little substance is behind it. A combination of six different interconnected stories taking place across centuries, Cloud Atlas feels epic, but at heart it’s just a fancier, more elaborate version of a movie like Crash or Babel, all about the way that seemingly random connections demonstrate the profound nature of our shared humanity. Cloud Atlas is better mainly because its individual pieces are more involving, and its message, however trite, is less heavy-handed. But the wow factor is diminished over the course of the nearly three-hour running time as the movie builds to a supposedly moving speech that amounts to little more than “All we need is love.”
Message aside, Cloud Atlas is a massive technical undertaking, the product of three writer-directors working with two entirely separate camera crews, featuring numerous actors each playing multiple roles. Siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) adapted David Mitchell’s 2004 novel by chopping it into pieces; the six stories that take place chronologically in the book (first going forward in time, then back) are presented simultaneously in the movie, making their connections more explicit and schematic.
In 1849, a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) is traveling across the Pacific Ocean toward San Francisco while being attended to by a doctor (Tom Hanks) with potentially sinister motives; in England in 1936, a young musician (Ben Whishaw) serves as the assistant to a famous eccentric composer (Jim Broadbent); in 1975 San Francisco, an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) gets caught up in a conspiracy surrounding a nuclear power plant; in 2012 London, a book publisher (Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a sinister nursing home; in Neo-Seoul, Korea, in 2144, a cloned servant (Doona Bae) rebels against the oppressive government; and in an undefined post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Hanks) helps a scientist (Berry) attempt to save humanity.
Got all that? It sounds confusing, but once you get a handle on each story, the movie isn’t really that hard to follow. That’s also part of the problem—taken on its own, each story is fairly basic, and elements that seem complex when doled out in bits and pieces (like the 1970s conspiracy thriller) don’t add up to much when taken all at once. The device of featuring many of the same actors in each story is more distracting than illuminating, since not all of the actors are right for all of the parts they play, and much of the makeup used to alter age, gender and ethnicity is unconvincing. The movie, too, is ultimately a little unconvincing, although its scope and ambition do a good job of masking that banality.