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?