Cloud Atlas is an ambitious project, encompassing half a dozen story lines spanning hundreds of years but played by the same actors.
The story concept reminded me of an engagement video I saw recently in which a young man induced his friends to create a dance video for his girlfriend. As the romantic pair walked along a path together toward a beach, friends danced for them and then ran ahead to appear in the next scene of the video. It looked as though hundreds of people were involved, but they were actually the same friends appearing over and over, with the entire crowd gathering at the beach for the final chorus. In Cloud Atlas the 6 billion people who live on earth today are an accumulation of all the people who have ever lived, reincarnated to return and play out yet another scene in earth's continuing saga.
But at nearly three hours, Cloud Atlas is overlong and often hard to follow. As with another "Atlas” film that was released this month, viewers who have read the book before seeing the film enjoy a distinct advantage. The opening scenes jump from character to character and scene to scene with virtually no exposition. And because there are so many disparate scenes, the result is disjointed and incoherent.
Early in the film a bombastic author, Dermot Hoggins (Tom Hanks), complains about a critic who has written a poor review of his book, Knuckle Sandwich. The critic has called it "flat and inane beyond belief." I considered it a brave move on the part of the scriptwriter to include that phrase from Cloud Atlas in its book form, since it invites the same critical assessment of the film itself — which is, for the most part, flat and inane beyond belief. It tries to be profound, with high-sounding quotable quotes. But most of it amounts to philosophical mumbo jumbo on par with "it takes a village." Here is just a sampling:
This world spins from the same twine that twists our hearts.
Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others.
Knowledge is a mirror. For the first time in my life I was allowed to see who I am, and who I could become.
You have to do what you can't not do.
Only those who have been deprived of freedom have the barest inkling of what it is.
To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.
Something as important as this [a musical piece called "The Cloud Atlas Sextet"] cannot be described as yours or mine, but ours. (Shades of "You didn't build that" . . .)
The philosophy behind the film is that "death is just a door to another room" where one encounters many of the same souls one knew in a previous lifetime, but in different guises and with different purposes and relationships. But this is no Somewhere in Time, where two people who have fallen in love in the past fall in love with each other again in the future; instead, the characters switch roles entirely, playing significant characters in one scenario and minor parts in another.
Tom Hanks, for instance, plays a murderous antagonist in two scenarios, a classic protagonist in two others, a minor character in a fifth, and a woman in a sixth. Although he does fall in love with characters played by the same actress (Halle Berry) in two of his scenarios, he does not have meaningful relationships with her in the others. In other words, the film does not seem to imply, as other reincarnation films have, that finding one's soul mate across the eternities is the main purpose of life.
The controlling theme in these stories is not just the idea of finding the same lover in different lifetimes, but of fighting against tyranny in every age. In each scenario someone brave is needed to stand up against evil groups. This might seem a libertarian theme. But the cosmic conflict between "rebel good" and "societal evil" lends Cloud Atlas an undeserved gravitas, since the film never fully or accurately identifies the underlying philosophies or actions that lead to tyranny. In one scene, for example, the protagonist sneers at her society's rule that "the first catechism is to honor thy consumer," an obvious dig at free market principles, not tyranny. (And apparently no one knows what a “catechism” is.)
Despite its philosophical inanity, Cloud Atlas can be admired and even enjoyed artistically. The film is worth seeing for the disguises alone; they are stunning, and will surely garner Oscar nominations for costume and makeup. And halfway through, the stories and characters begin to sort themselves out enough to become compelling and empathetic. The acting is superb on all counts. This is a tour de force for Tom Hanks, who revels in his makeup and accents, although there is an unfortunate hint of Forrest Gump in one of his characters. Halle Berry is gorgeous, as always, and so, for that matter, is James Sturgess. It is a pleasant surprise to see Hugh Grant outside the familiar romantic comedies where he has been most comfortable. Moreover, the music, cinematography, and special effects are splendid. Be sure to stay for the credits, where you may be surprised to see which actors played which characters.