Where am I? What month is it? Did they have the election? Sorry, it’s just that I’ve been in a screening of “Cloud Atlas,” and it feels like I’ve been gone forever.
Not in a good way.
The problem isn’t that the movie’s three hours long. The problem is how those hours pass. But I shouldn’t say the problem. Really, it’s one of several. Because if you can have several plots whirling around simultaneously within a single film, you can have several simultaneous problems. That’s what “Cloud Atlas” proves.
Written and directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, it was adapted from David Mitchell’s novel — and while admiringly familiar with Mitchell’s work, your correspondent is big enough to admit he hasn’t read this particular novel. (How could he, having been stuck in the movie for half his life?) But the Internet helpfully explains that there are six distinct stories at play in “Cloud Atlas,” and I’m so exhausted by now that I’ll just say yes, fine, that sounds about right.
The outermost framework of setting, a primitive sea-adjacent woodland, is described as “106 winters after the Fall.” Others, then, are litanies of prelapsarian tedium — respectively the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century, England in the 1930s, San Francisco in the 1970s, England again in the present day, and Korea in 2144. Each has its own hokey melodrama to contend with, usually to do with stifled lives seeking some manner of liberty or consummation.
These are woven together by countless self-delighted segues, plus several lead actors prosthetically gunked up to play multiple roles. The intended effect is an awe of human connectedness, but the result is closer to the giddily apocalyptic recurrence of Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove.” Except less fun. For all the attention it draws to its stars — including but not limited to Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon — “Cloud Atlas” has a way of treating them as puttylike extras.
They’re troupers, at least. With his usual fine touch, Whishaw is the best of the lot. Hanks delivers some substance, but also some rotten ham. Bae has a hard time in English. Berry goes bland; Broadbent, broad; Sturgess, soft; and sameness sets in all around. Which is not the same as unity.
Could de-emphasizing people be a way to emphasize ideas? “Cloud Atlas” does have breathy high-minded platitudes about freedom, music, science, journalism, literature, and love. What intentional humor it has is low and crass. Maybe these are populist touches. (Admittedly my audience laughed a few times — perhaps most robustly and deservingly at the moment when a critic got thrown off a skyscraper balcony.) But cheese is cheese. To call the film “ambitious,” as people already have and maybe always will, is to hedge on questions about its actual entertainment value or respect for audience intelligence.
The book, I understand, is a puzzle of pleasure — or, if you prefer, a vast sanctuary in which the readerly imagination becomes entwined with the writerly one. The movie is a booklet of vouchers for sweep and spectacle, and an unsatisfying game of internal reference-catching. Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of an epic to keep dicing it up into shorthanded mini-epics? If it’s a deconstruction of an epic, it lacks the courage of that conviction.
There is an inviting piece of music in there, a vaguely Debussian reverie which ought — By Mitchell’s own design, I think — to hold the whole thing together. But the movie seems to find it intimidating, and slinks off in more pedestrian directions. Soon enough (soonness being relative here), “Cloud Atlas” comes to seem like a film that exists more to challenge the notion of unfilimability than to pay forward whatever inspiration its source material may once have provided. Compulsively digressive, glutted with pseudo-cliffhangers, it behaves like some pompous and bottomlessly budgeted series on a premium cable channel, routinely nullifying its own suspense: After a while each return to any particular storyline brings only a pang of resentment that none in particular has yet been wrapped up. Rather than boggle the mind, it benumbs.
The tone, too, is a poorly tossed salad: geriatric farce here, gloomy dystopian satire there, not enough real flavor anywhere. Grand camera moves and music swells nudge a theoretical awareness of deep feeling, but under these circumstances real emotional investment is fleeting at best. Somewhere along the loopy line, one character asks another how he knew they might become friends. The other points at his eyes and says, “All you need.” So true. And yet here’s a movie overflowing with so much more than it needs. As you read this, someone somewhere probably is begging for it to fucking end already.