One of the few critics who seems willing to give himself over to its fearless exuberant head-tripping labyrinth, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir says “Cloud Atlas is a flawed and potentially ridiculous work and I loved it, and can’t wait to see it a second time (and then a third). Indeed, all of that is connected…”
I can appreciate a well-crafted work of Hollywood formula that gives the audience what it already knows it wants, at least up to a point, but I often come away feeling restless and unsatisfied. I’d almost always rather see the rare kind of pop spectacle that takes enormous risks, that reaches for grand themes, big ideas and operatic emotions, even if it makes indefensible mistakes along the way. That’s what “Cloud Atlas” is, the kind of oversize, overpriced movie that critic Stuart Klawans described in his book “Film Follies.” (The classic example would be D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Intolerance,” which serves as a major model and influence here.) “Cloud Atlas” is arguably way too much of a good thing, with too many characters, too many stories, too many directors – Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume,” and Andy and Lana Wachowski (né Larry) of the “Matrix” trilogy — and too much running time. But its too-muchness is also the source of its power; I was absolutely never bored, and felt surprised when the movie ended. It’s an amazing, baffling, thrilling and (for many, it would appear) irritating experience, and for my money the most beautiful and distinctive big-screen vision of the year.
…Purely at a cinematic level, “Cloud Atlas” is full of eye-popping delights, a puzzle movie and an anthology movie that incorporates numerous different genres and styles. The directing duties were actually divided, with Tykwer tackling the romantic saga of a suicidal gay composer in 1936, a thrilling tale of “China Syndrome”-style nuclear intrigue in 1973 (arguably my favorite) and the present-day comic melodrama of a bankrupt London publisher imprisoned in a mental hospital, while the Wachowskis handled both the distant past and even more distant future. (Tykwer uses his customary cinematographer, Frank Griebe, while the Wachowski segments are shot by Hollywood vet John Toll.) But I never thought about any stylistic differences while watching, and indeed the transitions between stories – often staged as the literal or figurative opening of doors – are so witty and imaginative I frequently laughed out loud. (Hollywood will be thoroughly confused by this film in general, but I imagine it will be up for numerous technical Oscars, including editing, production design and costume design.)
I don’t want to get too deep into geeky exegesis in an early review, but “Cloud Atlas” isn’t about reincarnation, at least not in the most familiar sense. (Although it may, in some metaphorical way, be about evolution.) Berry and Hanks and the others don’t play the same characters by any means – in fact, only one of Hanks’s characters is unambiguously heroic – and it’s much more than your basic romantic parables about lovers who can’t be separated by death. One possible interpretation, however, would be that the same characters or archetypes (the rebel prophet, the enforcer for the powerful, the killer devoured by greed, the courier or messenger) reappear in each story, and throughout human history, in various guises.
I can understand why some people will back away from “Cloud Atlas” because it seems overloaded and pretentious and sentimental and infused with a spiritual vision that resembles the wise sayings found on the walls of organic-food cooperatives. It is all those things, but so (even more so) is Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” and I’m way more likely to want to watch this one again. It’s funny, violent and prodigiously romantic; it has immense heart and more gorgeous cinematic moments than I can describe. If this movie is overgrown and chaotic where Donne’s sonnet is tiny and controlled, that’s the nature of our age; what they aim to accomplish is the same.