Cloud Atlas (2012, Lana Wachowski / Lilly Wachowski / Tom Tykwer)
You have to admire the chutzpah of the utterly batshit Cloud Atlas even if you can’t stay on board with its entire nutty conceit, which is actually a bit less weird than it seems at first blush; its wild experiments are mostly easily pared down to stunt casting and jarring editing choices. Essentially, this adaptation of a cult novel by David Mitchell is a nesting doll, like The Grand Budapest Hotel with an even more tenuous string between its ideas. It has the kooky energy of the novels Snoopy’s always depicted writing in Peanuts, only with a wide-eyed belief in links across generations (and, possibly, past and future lives) that the beagle typically shirked. From primitive future Hawaiians to 1970s investigative journalism to slave ships in the 1840s to totalitarian destinies to modern-day publishing houses, it’s all connected, man.
The film opens with a sort of sweeping explication of the various stories that are about to be told, which is a familiar tactic in portmanteau movies going back generations. The curiosity with Cloud Atlas is that it vaguely promises a grand underlying denominator to all this that never really materializes. There are common themes, sure, and it’s certainly interesting that some piece of literature or art connects each of the six depicted eras to the next one, but in a film whose distinctive parts gain resonance by their juxtaposition, it’s odd that they don’t truly have all that much to do with one another. At the end, you’re left with sort of a metaphysical Magnolia — and as with that film, for me at least, the collection of little dramas adds up to less of a whole than the structure would cause one to hope. Maybe it’s more of a metaphysical A Letter to Three Wives, since the stories are largely self-contained.
Rather than exploring each of the six sequences individually, the picture takes to cross-cutting them so that their climaxes happen simultaneously and the viewer ideally draws an emotional line between the relationships of people and their stories across centuries. This unusual approach to an already oblique premise comes courtesy of no less than three directors: the Wachowski siblings who made the Matrix films, and Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame. Despite attaining a kind of iconoclastic status over the years, none of them are proven as particularly great filmmakers but they cannot be faulted for coming at this material tentatively.
I don’t mind that the tone lurches back and forth, especially because the directors have a strong stylistic grip on most of the movies they’re trying to make here. In chronological order, we have social melodrama, tense psychological warfare over the creative process, political journo-thriller, wacky Grumpy Old Men remake, beautifully designed sci-fi with a liberal bent, and pure absolute Amazing Stories camp. None of the stories feels completely formed, and even taken as singular episodes they don’t build to the kind of climactic “eureka” that they seem to want, but it’s fun to watch the filmmakers race so frenetically between ideas, and more than a little heartening to see a big studio budget expended on something so individualistic and weird.
The stars do a great job, with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry especially putting an incredible amount of work into establishing multiple distinctive characters; you can sense that they believe in and like the material and that they’re aware the whole thing is just a little goofy. Between this and Captain Phillips, it seems that the long-complacent Hanks has become a genuinely interesting and risk-taking actor again. Cloud Atlas also gets points, in the age of Christopher Nolan, for being a big expensive sci-fi (?) movie that hinges on human emotions as its major catalyst. That’s refreshing, and is a big part of why it will probably earn a Blade Runner-like cult before the decade’s out. Except that the Wachowskis and Tykwer are a lot better at this kind of thing than Ridley Scott is, especially at hiding their story shortcomings with glitter and audacity, and having a blast doing so.