Review: Cloud Atlas is a beautiful mixed bag of amazing and terrible

It’s no wonder Cloud Atlas opened to mixed and polarized reviews, it’s like a three-hour, constantly shifting contradiction, going from tear-inducing poignant to chortle-provoking stupid (and you never want to provoke a chortle, EVER). You want to give it credit for all its dazzling imagery, but almost every actual idea it presents it eventually contradicts or pisses down its leg.

Based on the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is a sort of Valentine’s Day of Oscar movies, a tale of love  across lifetimes. The twist this time is that each vignette stars the same cast – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving –  giving the makeup artists a workout and keeping the producers from having to hire Josh Duhamel. Co-directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski Starship, it cuts between six interconnecting storylines:

  • An 1849 colonial ocean voyage (Wachowskis)
  • A 1930s gay love story about an aspiring composer (Tykwer)
  • An environmental thriller set in 1970s San Francisco (Tykwer)
  • A contemporary drama about a British book publisher (Tykwer)
  • An Asian-face revolt in 2144 New Seoul (Wachowskis)
  • A Hunger Games-ish arrow fight on a post-apocalyptic 24th century forest island (Wachowskis).

Going into a three-hour story of love that defies time, place, and the boundaries of the individual, you dread a certain amount of pomposity, a story drunk on its own loftiness. Even the casual moviegoer recognizes the correlation between make-up and awards-needy self-importance, and Cloud Atlas has enough conspicuous make-up to build Nicole Kidman a thousand nose prosthetics. But at least at first, Cloud Atlas is a pleasant surprise, seeming more concerned with imagery than with beating you over the head with loves, longing, and triumphs of the will. I love a period piece, and Cloud Atlas is like six in one – Downton’s abbey, frigate, restaurant, island, nuclear reactor, and nursing home.

Though nicely playful, the storylines do vary, quality-wise. For a guy with two Best Actor Oscars, Tom Hanks’ British accent is surprisingly terrible in the story of the Chopper-esque author of “Knuckle Sandwich.” The flip side of that coin is the post-apocalyptic forest island of Ewok people who sippy tie a yibbity yup in a future-bumpkin patois more than a little reminiscent of Grotesco’s “The Trial.Makin’ ‘cusations against a spesh guest, it jus’ ain’t politesome, Zachry. Most future movies just go with a vaguely-English, overly-earnest toolspeak, but invented vernacular like this is so, so much more fun.

Point being, the storylines all start out strong, drawing you in with pretty pictures and goofy makeup. It’s hard (and confusing) to buy Halle Berry as a blue-eyed blonde Englishwoman or Jim Sturgess as a Korean, you figure they’re going somewhere with it, and all the costumes and sets are so fully realized that you’re happy to just float along with the stories, shifting gears before getting too bogged down in any one narrative.

And then, eventually, it all crashes and burns.

It’s flattering to the filmmakers to think Cloud Atlas‘s mixed reviews are the result of “challenging” or “provocative art,” but the cringe-worthy Asianface makeup isn’t a difficult idea so much as uncanny valley unpleasantness, a basic lack of finesse that eventually reveals itself in every storyline. You’d question the taste of anyone who thought this was a good idea, wouldn’t you?

“Too ambitious” gives you the impression of a movie that tries to be bigger than it was meant to be and ends up muddled – the ending of Fight Club comes to mind, a story broadened when it should’ve stayed narrow. If anything, Cloud Atlas is the opposite, facile and falsely reductive, slapping sloppy, crappy genre endings on all of its intriguing storylines. It’s entertaining for the vast majority of its running time, but the ending is so stupid that it almost makes you feel like a jackass for having enjoyed it to begin with.

One story has a greedy oil man straight out of the Muppet movie. Another climaxes with a bad guy who helpfully explains his evil plans right before he’s about to kill the hero. At least three of them have that Scooby Doo moment where the bad guy has the good guy in his gun sights when all of a sudden the good guy’s friend comes out of nowhere and kabongs the bad guy with a big ol’ wrench. All it’s missing are the little birdies flying around the heads. Oh, and the bad guys all toss around racial slurs, in case you were confused about whether they were bad or not.

Worst of all, the initial playfulness gives way to vacuous preaching as soon as they start trying to tie up loose ends. “Our lives are not our own. From Womb to Tomb we are bound to others. Every crime and kindness births our future,” is a frequent refrain, and yeesh, guys, show, don’t tell. Cloud Atlas‘s humanist ideas about reincarnation, all races are one, love transcending lifetimes, everything is connected and freee looove, braaah are fine as a jumping off point into the individual worlds, which are brilliantly realized, but the more they try to sell you on the interconnectedness of it all, the more the seams start to show.

For one thing, this humanist story about the illusion of individuality sure is pretty goddamn Judeo-Christian at times. If you want to go all krishna krishna hare hare with whites playing Asians, blacks playing whites, and Maoris that are black (?) to show that we’re all one love, mon, how come Hugo Weaving is the bad guy in every world? Aren’t there not supposed to be demons in humanist reincarnation land? And if the whole premise of the enterprise is timelessness, loves that live on and ends that are never really the end, why are you trying to wrap up every storyline in a neat, little Hollywood package? (To say nothing of why every story seems to have chase scene and shootout).

By the end, Cloud Atlas feels like the college freshman full of ideas who grows dreadlocks to keep from bein’ a stuffed suit stuck in a cookie-cutter world like his conformist dad, but can’t quite commit to Bohemianism enough to give up his trustfund. In the Korean restaurant storyline, where genetically-engineered waitresses work a future-Hooters with digital koi swimming across the floor and sleep in storage coffins (probably the most visually inventive of the storylines), there’s even a lingering, spread-armed, messiah-like death pose in one scene. REALLY?! A F*CKING CHRIST METAPHOR?!? YOUR HUMANIST STORY OF REINCARNATION HAS A F*CKING CHRIST METAPHOR?!?

It reminded me of The Matrix trilogy, where the Wachowskis started out with an intriguing concept and ended it on “Hey, do you get it? Neo is Jesus. Also, the future is dreadlock rave parties.”

Christ metaphors are the absolute lowest-hanging fruit of faux-meaningful symbolism, like posing a naked chick next to a crucifix. “Ooh, don’t buy Madonna’s perfume, you guys, she’s dangerous!” It’s not edgy anymore! Also, there are other books! Cloud Atlas has so many allusions to other things – Soylent Green in particular – and weird, self-referential meta art, like characters from one storyline showing up in TV shows in others – and concurrently, such a failure to flesh out its own ideas, that you start to wonder if Cloud Atlas is overstuffed simply as a way to compensate for not really having much to say in the first place. The old post-modern parlor trick – stuff piled on stuff piled on stuff eventually revealing… ta da! We got you to dig through a pile of stuff! Get it, man? The journey was the destination.

Look, I don’t know what the hell grade to give this movie. It’s a very entertaining movie that looks great and is occasionally touching, almost in spite of itself. It’s 90 percent good, and yet so, so bad.