In the landscape of a Hollywood cinema where fear of failure engenders safe formulas over and over again, Cloud Atlas is some kind of meteoric event, risking catastrophe at every turn and obliterating the sanctions of good taste. In its multiplicity of narrative threads, genre send-ups, and plot overlaps, it practically guarantees disorientation. Unlike 95% of commercial movies, it moves according to thematic rather than narrative logic. It runs just short of three hours, and could theoretically end at any moment once its central theses have been established. It offers neither narrative coherence, satisfying character development, or rational cutting rhythms—all qualities viewers have come to expect from a movie that costs this much. It is merely images and feelings, moving in time and ready to collapse at any moment.
Cloud Atlas was adapted from an "unfilmable" novel by David Mitchell and directed by—or rather, assembled from scenes directed by—Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. From the Wachowskis the film has acquired their propensity for the slow-motion money shot and their signature sense of characters groping for freedom in a world bound by limits of time, space, social and emotional structures, and political systems, and from Tykwer comes the film’s earnest but general romanticism as well as its amped-up, high adrenaline crosscutting, the feeling as if every moment is on the brink of infinity and obsolescence. Both filmmaking parties understand how to seize the attention of their audience, and their showboating capacities have been injected into every nook and cranny of Cloud Atlas; the film is bursting with visual flair and big emotional stakes, so much so that it overloads the senses. Together, their sensibilities have birthed something new, something of such grandiose expressivity that the film paradoxically feels distant and fleeting, prone to inspiring intellectual detachment rather than continued emotional connection.
Shards of The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Cast Away, Avatar, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and many other major studio pictures of the last few decades scatter across Cloud Atlas’ running time, but these moments are too non-specific to be filed as homage or as rip-offs. Postmodernism has swallowed itself in Cloud Atlas: references and associations are no longer targeting an explicit metatextual realm but are rather subsumed into the film’s entire way of thinking. Cultural history, rolled out like a sprawling document, crumpled apart, and dispersed arbitrarily, is the very foundation upon which Cloud Atlas exists.
Science fiction, period romance, fantasy, action/adventure, the gangster film, and the costume drama become bedfellows of one another like they rarely have before. Every scene feels like a fragment of some larger whole, making Cloud Atlas in its entirety a flipbook of scenes stranded from their respective cinematic universes. A scene is not begun or finished but is rather preceded and continued in some parallel storyworld—a perpetual loop of mega-budget pulp. This sustaining irresolution gives the film its constant sensation of being on the brink of collapse, an idea given visual weight in a slow motion shot of two would-be lovers standing in a room as china glassware falls all around them.
Commenters eager to pick Cloud Atlas apart have gravitated towards the subject of hair and makeup design, which so ostentatiously drapes every major actor and actress in this elaborate dress-up party. On one level, they’d be right to say it’s garish and unconvincing—Tom Hanks and especially Hugo Weaving have never looked so stupid—but on another the overt costumage is a humorous commentary on the very nature of performing in Hollywood. If acting is a way of morphing to various images of possible human beings, Cloud Atlas argues that at the center there is always an actual human being, static and contrived, and we cannot escape that. There’s a reason why a doctor coughing on a joint has a special comic charge: it has more to do with Tom Hanks, a celebrity figure of nobility and good health, standing there in a feathered wig and a goofy doctor’s outfit on a plastic movie set indicative of 1970s San Francisco struggling to suck back marijuana than it does with the character of Dr. Isaac Sachs taking a smoke from Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) in this precise narrative moment.
The casting of Hugo Weaving in multiple parts throughout Cloud Atlas works on a similarly extratextual level. So indelibly linked to the evils of The Matrix trilogy, Weaving’s very presence feels like an attempt on the Wachowski’s part to both form a continuity with their own previous work and carry over a foundation of evil and oppression. His most absurd turn is a demonic Willy Wonka-like figure that whispers threatening omens in the ear of Hanks’ post-apocalyptic Hawaiian hippy; weighing on the good guy's conscience at every turn, he is representative of the many existential laws and limits against which the Wachowskis continually pit their characters.
Eventually, all of the script’s ham-fisted new-age philosophies—“everything is connected” and other such platitudes—sound less like sincere beliefs in reincarnation and universal connectivity than they do like commentary on the world of genre cinema. In this light, the oft-repeated phrase “our lives are not our own” could just as easily be “our films are not our own.” Conversely, “just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes” and “I will not be subjected to criminal abuse” are like emblems of individualism against Orwellian studio control. There’s a strange push-pull between an acceptance of the recyclable nature of media and a desire to separate from the pack that distinguishes the film’s place in the cultural continuum.
In keeping with this ambivalence, Cloud Atlas does end up negating its own potential argument for individuality by attempting to wrangle its disparate threads into neat emotional arcs. That the final thirty minutes of the film is littered with firecracker action sequences and sappy expressions of romance is either Tykwer and the Wachowskis admitting their own defeat in the face of decades of box-office success or it’s their earnest celebration of the fact that at the core of every formulaic genre picture there is something valuable that fills seats. In either instance, there’s a stance of conservatism in this denouement that punctures the loud ambition and illusion of Importance permeating the first two thirds of the film. But whatever the final message (if there is one at all), Cloud Atlas is ultimately no less accurate a record of how cinematic images become dynamically rooted in memory than Tabu, another film this year to regurgitate a cumulative cinematic consciousness.