In movies, as in life, so often it’s not what you say but how you say it. Consider: If I tell you my favorite movie is about a young man struggling to come to grips with his troubling family legacy in the wake of his father’s death, all while undertaking a difficult journey to discover what kind of businessman, leader, and person he wants to be; am I describing The Godfather, or Tommy Boy? The thematic reductions can look the same when you cartoonishly flatten them, but no one would ever argue that the films have the same effect on the viewer or are made with the same skill. One is a sweeping, haunted look at society and power in post-war America, while the other is a buddy comedy with the dark edges sanded off by the treacly big-screen wing of mid-1990s “Saturday Night Live.” At the broadest level, the two movies can be said to be about the same things, but it’s the way those things are presented that makes all the difference.
Cloud Atlas is, nominally, about the human condition, the fragility of relationships, and the unseen nature of causality, but it’s so bluntly constructed and clumsily delivered that the lasting impression isn’t of connection or revelation but simply exhaustion. Its topics, on that broadest level, are interesting and relevant and even a little noble. But it’s in the telling that the tale comes apart. In fact, it becomes clear pretty early on that there’s no real tale to be told here, just six century-spanning narratives edited together at a blistering pace to give the illusion of resonance. Similar plot moments from different threads are welded together to make absolutely sure viewers remember that “we are all connected,” even though that oft-repeated phrase becomes meaningless when it’s given voice by characters so empty there’s no use pretending they’re anything other than ciphers meant to deliver a message and then evaporate.
Based on David Mitchell’s novel, the film has been adapted and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. The Wachowskis handled directing duties on three of the film’s stories: a young businessman (Jim Sturgess) dealing with the moral repercussions of slavery in the mid-1800s; a clone-like fabricant (Doona Bae) wrestling with sentience and her duties as a would-be revolutionary in 2144; and a goat-herder (Tom Hanks) living on the Hawaiian islands in a far-off time after a global apocalypse. Tykwer, meanwhile, helmed the other three: an aging composer (Jim Broadbent) in 1930s Europe working with an assistant (Ben Whishaw) to create one last great piece; a tabloid reporter (Halle Berry) uncovering a business scandal in the 1970s, and an aging book publisher (Broadbent) involuntarily placed in a retirement home in 2012. Each of these stories is ostensibly intended to have a different tone: the 19th-century tale is one of seafaring drama, the near-future story is sci-fi action, the 1970s thread is generic conspiracy thriller, and so on. Yet the film is so hyperactively edited that we’re never in one location long enough to form an attachment to the characters or the action, nor to feel any real shift in execution from one era to the next. The goal becomes, simply, to watch the filmmakers cut back and forth between them, turning a sweeping narrative into a bland trick. It’s not that there are jarring tonal shifts: it’s that we’re never in one place long enough to get any sense of tonality, period. Additionally, the whole thing is cut like a trailer for itself, a breathlessly self-reflexive ad for its own existence. The film exists in a constant state of worked-up nervousness, marveling at its own design.
Each of the different stories deals with similar conflicts of repression and rebellion, and each is acted out by the same group of people in varying degrees of makeup and costume. Sometimes this works: Broadbent is particularly well-suited to his two main roles, waffling between greed and charity whether he’s dealing with a gifted musical assistant or a territorial nursing home staff. Sometimes, though, it serves no purpose other than to call awkward attention to itself, as when Sturgess, Hugh Grant, and James D’Arcy wear prosthetics that attempt to give them Korean features but wind up making them look deformed in some unspecified way. At first, I thought that their characters in those scenes were intended to be a futuristic evolution of mankind, but it soon became clear that they were meant to look like real people. It’s a clumsy set-up that breaks the illusion of the narrative.
That’s probably the best way to put it: Cloud Atlas keeps getting in its own way. In the story set in the distant future, with Hanks as the goat-herder Zachry, the characters speak in a howlingly uncomfortable pidgin dialect whose intent (convey that the world has changed drastically) is constantly overshadowed by its execution (cringe-inducing grunts about the “true-true” and “da devil”). Like the stunt casting, the clunky dialogue becomes a distraction, something that reminds you you’re watching a movie instead of letting you experience it. Of course, the dialogue in the other segments is just as bad, often falling back onto the pseudo-philosophical mish-mash that the Wachowskis crammed into the ill-advised second and third chapters of the Matrix films. At one point, a character says, “My uncle was a scientist, but he believed that love was real.” Are we supposed to think that scientists don’t believe in love at all, and that this man was the exception? Or are we supposed to commend him for coming to the same basic conclusion about the mysteries of human connection that untold billions of people have already reached? Cloud Atlas is full of these moments where characters excitedly declaim to each other that actions have consequences, and the future is kind of an unknown, and so on. These statements are presented as a hard-won “truth,” so much so that when the film ended I kept replaying the final moments and wondering if the preceding three hours had actually happened.
It’s easy — tempting, anyway — to want to reconsider things, to want to give the film some kind of pass for its scope and ambition, as if aim and accuracy were the same thing. And there’s no doubt that the film’s ambitious. But it would be wrong to praise the film for what I want it to be instead of talking about what it actually is: a heavy-handed, simplistic, graceless tone poem that feigns depth while wading in the shallows. The film’s blistering editing and hopscotch approach to momentum and catharsis leave the viewer cold, more admiring of the vessel than aboard for the voyage. It’s almost as if the film’s goal is to keep you disoriented in the hopes that you’ll confuse banality for revelation. But diagnosis isn’t cure, and it’s not enough for the filmmakers to mumble vague things about connectedness and patterns and hope it’s the same as making an insight into human nature. I can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if they’d focused on just one or two of the stories, or better yet, something altogether new. It’s only in illuminating specific characters that we can learn something about all of us. Breadth comes all at once, but depth is an individual pursuit. Ironically, by trying to say something big, the film says nothing at all.