Despite being based on an acclaimed best-selling novel, the movie version of Cloud Atlas was always going to be a hard sell with its nearly three-hour running time and six, distinct, intercut storylines spanning 500 years. But for me, one of the most daunting things about Cloud Atlas are the words "From the makers of The Matrix Trilogy." Yes, two of the three directors of Cloud Atlas are the Wachowski... siblings -- formerly the Wachowski brothers until Larry Wachowski underwent a sex change and is now a woman named Lana.
The Wachowskis wrote and directed one of the most important films of my life, The Matrix. But the two Matrix sequels that followed were the two biggest, most soul-crushing disappointments of my moviegoing life -- failures so devastating and incomprehensible that I've tried mightily to expunge them from my memory and pretend I live in a world where the Wachowskis called it a day after The Matrix and the stellar but underappreciated The Animatrix.
Would the Wachowskis redeem themselves with another reality-twisting mindbender? Or would Cloud Atlas prove that The Matrix was truly a fluke? Or is the biggest takeaway from Cloud Atlas that you should never, ever try to make white people look Asian? Watch my ReThink Review of Cloud Atlas below (transcript following).
At nearly three hours long, with three directors, following six interconnected stories spanning 500 years, with actors playing multiple characters (sometimes of different sexes and races), Cloud Atlas is nothing if not ambitious. And for that, it deserves some credit, risking a budget estimated at around $100 million to tell a story that's difficult to even describe and is bound to lose viewers who get tired of the constant crosscutting between eras and waiting to see how they all tie together. But does being challenging and ambitious, while admirable, necessarily mean that a film is any good?
In Cloud Atlas, we have three stories from the past, starting with a young man in 1849 (played by Jim Sturgess) who reluctantly helps a slave stow away on a transatlantic voyage. In 1936, a budding British composer (played by Ben Winshaw) must navigate the dual indignities of apprenticing under an arrogant, ungrateful master while hiding his forbidden love for another man. And in 1973, Halle Berry plays a reporter in San Francisco trying to uncover a conspiracy involving safety at a nuclear power plant.
In the present day, there's a publisher (played by Jim Broadbent) on the run from criminals who finds himself trapped in a retirement home. In the future, we have a tale set in 22nd century Seoul, South Korea, where a waitress clone (played by Doona Bae) rebels against her assigned role and an authoritarian society to become her own person. And even further in the future, a post-apocalyptic goatherder in Hawaii (played by Tom Hanks) must decide if he'll help a technologically-advanced visitor reach a remote part of the island while avoiding a marauding tribe of cannibals.
Through all six stories, all the actors -- including Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant -- play multiple roles, both big and small, recognizable and not, wearing lots of different makeup and wigs, implying reincarnation and the interconnectedness of souls throughout time.
Got all that? Because, to be honest, for a time I didn't. Or, more accurately, I sort of checked out for a while partway through Cloud Atlas, which often felt like it was a puzzle solely for the sake of being a puzzle, and wasn't one that I was terribly invested in solving. I've never found Berry to be a very compelling actress, since she's really only turned in maybe two good performances in a movie career spanning close to 20 years, and Hanks often seems to be hamming it up.
The actors playing multiple roles with various accents and makeup effects often felt gimmicky and distracting, and nowhere was this more true than with the futuristic Seoul story, where Sturgess and Weaving wear prosthetics to supposedly make them look Korean. Now, I'm not sure if I'd call this racist since actors playing multiple roles is one of the film's conceits, but in case you didn't know, Asian people and white people look pretty different from each other. And I don't think anyone of any race would deny that the effects to supposedly make white people look like Asians looks GOD AWFUL in a way that was hard for me not to take personally.
But Cloud Atlas kind of won me back as I began to see what I think is the film's central theme: freedom from oppression. All six stories touch on this theme, with Sturgess' characters largely (though sometimes reluctantly) trying to free others while Grant's and Weaving's characters consistently try to prevent it. Berry's main characters seem to be searching for a truth that will set people free, while Hanks' arc is the biggest, as his characters span from an outright villain driven by greed to a humble man realizing the role he can play for a cause much bigger than himself.
Cloud Atlas is a movie that some will love and some will hate. But the idea of characters being reincarnated in a centuries-old battle for freedom is a pretty neat one, and along with some impressive visuals, there's some nice stuff going on in Cloud Atlas, a flawed film that's not nearly as profound as it thinks it is, but still provides a decent mental workout.