Where does one start with Cloud Atlas, a film built, as it were, on the idea that beginnings and endings are meaningless? Scripted and helmed in collaboration between Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski, this massively dumb, if not exactly dull, adaptation of David Mitchell’s beloved novel of the same name touches on six narratives, each individually beholden to a host of varying familiar genre tropes and incrementally dispersed between 1849 and the mid 2300s. And yet, the filmmakers use physical symbols and popular themes to tease out some elusive and awesome interconnection that supersedes any notion of time, trusting in an intangible cosmic thingamajig that no individual can truly come to understand in their own lifespan.
So, Cloud Atlas qualifies as mildly engaging spiritual hokum, spread out over approximately half a millennium, and to underline their nothing-changes pseudo-philosophy, the filmmakers utilize their cast in varying roles in each story. Among the jumble, Jim Broadbent appears as both a lovably corrupt publisher imprisoned by his brother (Hugh Grant) in a country retirement home, and an egotistical composer who attempts to steal credit for his younger colleague’s (Ben Whishaw) magnum opus. Tom Hanks plays both a duplicitous doctor attempting to burgle and poison a young wealthy man (Jim Sturgess), and a post-apocalyptic warrior leading a seer (Halle Berry) to an ancient temple. And of course, Wachowski regular Hugo Weaving, along with Hanks, Sturgess, Grant, and Berry, appears in a full six iterations, including a bulky Nurse Ratchet type and an ugly, imaginary raconteur with Lewis Carroll garb and feathers for fingernails.
The pervasive theme is, as it always is in Wachowski land, raging against any number of machines, whether it be corporate greed, familial jealousies, the government, teachers, doctors, or, naturally, cannibalistic barbarians. In Mitchell’s novel, the ambition was to present the power of the author’s distinct voice in a multitude of popular genres, to essentially subvert the importance of narrative, therefore offering freedom from fear of being derivative for all future artists. And though the directors are certainly under no obligation to follow Mitchell’s lead, their decision to rely solely on the details of his narrative strands makes their film feel tinny from early on, no matter how gargantuan it grows in scope.
The film works most convincingly off its technical skill, as it glides along at a clip with very few remarkable lags. Its often exhilarating design, however, is matched only with shallow ideas about control, as the filmmakers ironically prove poor in expressing anything but their tight command over the plotted turns of each story. In the hands of a sharper director, or as a carefully curated anthology film, Cloud Atlas might have served as a grand statement of personality over product, of the power of the camera to dismantle story at the will of the director. Instead, the filmmakers, who blend their styles into a bland, cartoonish aesthetic, preach hope solely in the power of story and do so in the most cynical terms available, smattering their stories with awkward profanity, crass sexuality, and cruel, bloody violence meant strictly to blindly demonize the powers that be or falsely equate murder with triumph, selling it all as the true-true.
Like most Warner Home Video Blu-ray releases of recent films, Cloud Atlas looks and sounds terrific. Colors are beautifully transferred, from the rich greens, browns, and reds of the post-apocalyptic storyline to the bright blues, blacks, and cold grays of the technocratic, fabricant-based society of Neo Seoul. Detail is sharp and stunning throughout, and facial and material textures benefit greatly from the clarity. Black levels are also perfectly inky. The audio is just as excellent, with the rampant dialogue in varying dialects clearly and crisply present out front, and the sweeping, epic score, by Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, and Johnny Klimek, sounds especially impactful alongside a sprawling landscape of sound effects.
Almost everything you need to know about Cloud Atlas can be summed up in the fact that it’s making-of featurette is called "A Film Like No Other," and it runs at a paltry seven minutes. Would not such a unique film call for a more storied analysis? Warner Home Video offers a few other featurettes, ranging in subjects from the adaptation of the novel to the acting to the "bold" thematic material, but they all deal exclusively in generalizations and mutual praise between cast and crew. It all comes to nothing, which, in this particular case, is fitting. A DVD copy of the film is also included.
Warner Home Vidoe does good by Cloud Atlas’s technical skill, but tellingly offers only brisk and flimsy featurettes to add any weight to the latest stylish mass of hoosafudge from Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis.