Some movies get boring after forty-five minutes. I’m usually restless shortly after the film’s halfway point, when all of the characters have been established and we’re just hoping the makers have a clever way of keeping us in suspense until the denouement. By this measure, which I consider the fairest means of quickly evaluating a movie, Cloud Atlas has achieved something a little bit miraculous. The Wachowskis’ (best-known for the Matrix series) and Tom Tykwer’s new epic clocks in at just under three hours, and I never lost my focus.
Firstly, Cloud Atlas benefits from the number of plotlines simultaneously developing in relative isolation from one another. We are presented with not one, not two, but six parallel narratives, each set in a different time period, with a different cast of characters, but with more or less the same lead actors dominating the screen. It sounds busy and confusing, and it is, a little, but it never gets boring. The fact that the multiple plotlines have nothing to do with each other, on the surface (one takes place in 1849, another in 2012, and yet another several hundred years in the future) helps keep the viewer interested. The links which develop between them, some of which are quite obvious, others less so, lend to a sense of growing understanding and enjoyment. It would be disingenuous to recommend Cloud Atlas to someone because they enjoy seafaring adventures, slapstick comedy, period dramas, or dystopian epics, but the film has all of them.
The Weaknesses & the Verdict
As with most ambitious creative projects, the film’s greatest strength is also its most serious weakness. Even though the lead actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving – appear in each of the narratives, their characters are, in most cases, wildly different from each other. For viewers interested in character development, the promise of a film like this is that while an actor may play a different character at different moments throughout the film, we can at least perceive some kernel of consistency across the roles that allow us to believe in their humanity and sketch their development arc. But Cloud Atlas is much more about the fun of recognizing familiar actors in deeply unfamiliar roles. While each character is well-played and well-written, none of them are allowed to develop believably or in a way that invites the viewers’ emotional investment. In this way, Cloud Atlas’s eclecticism is its downfall.
Still, this movie’s very entertaining 172 minutes is well worth the ticket price. It’s a unique, daring epic.