A butterfly flaps its wings in 1849 and starts a revolution in a futuristic Korea. Seven stories traverse time and space, interweaving in an overly simplified metaphor for reincarnation. Such is Cloud Atlas, a bloated, visually stunning, poorly acted and frustrating exercise in filmmaking.
The film follows a core group of characters through several lives. The choices they make in each current life affect their next life. They are also bound to meet certain individuals over and over again.
In 1849, a notary authorizing a slave trade (Jim Sturgess: Upside Down) encounters a stowaway slave and must decide whether to cling to his notions that some races are meant to serve or to show kindness to a man in need.
In 1931, a poor composer (Ben Whishaw: The Hour) must choose whether to fight against his oppressive mentor (Jim Broadbent: The Iron Lady) or submit to his plagiarism and abuse.
In 1975, a reporter (Halle Berry: Dark Tide) must choose whether to walk away from a dangerous story or expose a nuclear power disaster in the making.
In 2012, a publisher (Broadbent) must decide whether to mend his dastardly ways or continue to live a life of disreputable bliss.
In a near-future Korea, a human fabricant (Doona Bae: As One) who works at a café where all the waitresses are clones must choose whether to join a freedom fighter (also Sturgess) and expose the cruel conditions of her life or accept her eventual fate.
In a future that borders on the end of the world, a shepherd (Tom Hanks: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) must decide whether to help an ambassador from an advanced society (Berry) look for a lost technology or kill her and maintain his life.
Based on the book by David Mitchell, the film gets muddled in Mitchell’s complicated plot machinations. While Mitchell’s book is seemingly more linear, directing trio Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer chose more disjointing by further mixing the narratives, cross-cutting between time and place.
To keep a sense of continuity through each of these stories, the directors chose to use the same stable of actors for each segment, sometimes as main characters, sometimes as background characters. The idea is clever, but it has serious drawbacks in practice.
At this point in history, we can create wondrous things in film. Makeup and CGI technology allow us to expand our imaginations, creating creatures from other worlds and gory displays in horror movies. Yet with all these advancements, Cloud Atlas can’t create convincing Asians out of a predominantly white cast. Sturgess and Hugh Grant are appalling in their Asian makeup.
While Berry and Bae also get to change races, the Wachowskis and Tykwer must have known that they were walking on thin ice with their racial makeup, as even they were not brave enough to cast one of their white actors as African American.
Besides questionable choices with their makeup, the directors fight a bigger problem: the terrible acting and boring direction that infests tjis film. Hanks, a two-time Academy Award winner, seems to believe he’s in an episode of Saturday Night Live, popping into scenes, mugging for the camera and displaying possibly the worst English accent ever captured on film. The rest of the cast, while serviceable, seems to be confused about whether their stories should be played for laughs or seriously. All of this makes the tone of Cloud Atlas impossible to define and rather boring.
While many have praised Cloud Atlas for its ambition, I’d rather condemn it for it’s awful execution and overlong running time. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas, but they need to be interesting to inspire.