The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cloud Atlas

Reviewed by Dario Llinares.

Director Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Length 172 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ***-------
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 1

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Checking your watch while in the cinema is a symbolic act. Rather than wanting to know the time per se it is a tacit acknowledgement of a lack of engagement and often a simple calculation of minutes remaining ‘til one can get the hell out of there. After what had already felt like days, I checked my watch during Cloud Atlas. The affective demoralisation that overtook me when I realised the film had only been running for an hour - and hence had another hour and three quarters to run - was undoubtedly the most potent, if unintended, effect of this viewing experience. The other reaction I had to this film I can only describe as incredulous exasperation. To say Cloud Atlas is misjudged, self-important, childishly farcical, stylistically and tonally incoherent, and spectacularly falling short of the profundity it aims for, is to fall inadequately short of encapsulating the film’s egregiousness. In many ways Cloud Atlas epitomises a flatulent indulgence that seems to have virulently afflicted much of contemporary popular filmmaking (a theme upon which I will elaborate in my forthcoming Alternate Take).

Cloud Atlas wears its epic credentials ostentatiously. Based on the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell, it interweaves six diverse stories from various locations over a 500-year time span incorporating past, present and future. Three of the stories are directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, 1999-2003), the remaining three by German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, 1998). The cast boasts an impressive array of talent - Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant - all playing multiple roles across the narratives. Thematically, there is an allusion to in-depth profundity here. The historical, material circumstances of human oppression underpin specific stories of enslavement, persecution, corruption and dissent through the ages, all of which are tied together by a grand, pseudo-religious overtone. With actors reappearing as multiple characters but with a commonality of identity, Cloud Atlas is a fable of spiritual transmigration inferring the notion that the universe is cyclical and transcendent.

Any seriousness with which one might take these heady notions is crushed by the unevenness of the styles and performances. The abrupt cutting between stories denies the possibility for the fermentation of dramatic tension. Heavy prosthetic make-up is used to cut across ethnic and gender boundaries and impart uniqueness to each role. However, the plasticity of this ‘masking’ borders on the laughable (and perhaps even offensive) at times. The acting is also inconsistent, with Tom Hanks’ scene chewing only outdone by Jim Broadbent, who is so over-the-top he looks like he’s trying to reinvigorate vaudeville. The two best stories focus on Ben Wishaw’s vulnerable gay musician in 1930s Scotland and the corporate dystopian future of Neo-Seoul in which Sturgess and Doona Bae stand out. The cinematography and music in the film are also excellent.

However, this doesn't make up for the section set in a nursing home, which is bizarre and horrendous in equal measure. Imagine something like an episode of Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), but edited together with sections from The Matrix, Apocalypto (2006) and Downton Abbey (2010-), and you get a sense of the tonal shifts. Not only does the stylistic inconsistency completely distance one from the film, each story is individually flimsy. How can a film be two and three quarter hours long yet feel underdeveloped? The fundamental irony of Cloud Atlas is that such an incoherent clunker of a movie should allude to the beauty of a universe of interconnected souls.

This review was published on March 02, 2013.