Phoned-in portent and feigned profundity form the basis of each of the seven interlocking narratives that comprise Cloud Atlas, and while they appear superficially distinct (a bit of creaky 1930s manor drama cast against garish near-future sci-fi, etc.), they share the fully consistent qualities of flat acting, shabby editing, and surprisingly uninspired design. That not one of these seven pieces feels like a coherently developed story of its own is perhaps unsurprising (even unfurling over an interminably dull 163 minutes, we simply don’t spend enough time with any particular set of characters for a single emotional arc to properly register), but what’s remarkable is how poorly they fit together as an ostensibly unified whole. The rhythm of this thing—and when you’re composing something this dense, rhythm is everything—just feels entirely wrong, reducing what crumbs of dramatic or kinetic interest are scattered across its running time to dust. This isn’t simply a case of elements of the film working or not working; the entire array of ideas (both aesthetic and thematic) which make up the film are so badly integrated that even the smallest traces and flickers of light are snuffed out altogether. Nothing works because, almost by the very nature of its design, nothing can: It collapses so intensely under the weight of its own inanity and pretension that nothing at all is left standing.
As with some of contemporary cinema’s other colossal, infamous failures (The Phantom Menace, say, or Andrew Stanton’s sometimes strangely similar John Carter), its badness is not merely a matter of minor or even major problems that, had they been solved or excised, would have allowed the truly great film at the core to flourish. This badness is fundamental, an essential aspect of the concept and its execution that I suspect is impossible to remedy or rectify. The details, embarrassing though they very often are, almost seem superfluous: Whether we’re talking about the gaudy, conspicuously fake-looking prosthetics worn by nearly every one of the film’s principal characters on nearly every occasion (which make most of these actors look like Jerry Lewis in The Family Jewels or Catherine Martell’s Chinese businessman costume in the second season of Twin Peaks), the astoundingly awful lead performance by Tom Hanks (who alternates between self-serious mugging and too-goofy clowning around, his interpretation of a brutish Irish author being the worst by some margin), an incoherent editing style which makes mincemeat of conventional spatial orientation within single scenes and of dramatic tension and any sense of suspense across the longer, frequently disjointed passages (when forgetting what’s going on in any of the timelines that aren’t currently on screen is made worse by the fact that one never actually cares about any of them), and a quaint “lemme tell you a story” framing device so hilariously terrible that it makes the old woman in Titanic look like a pilgrim from Canterbury Tales.
“What is an ocean,” one character asks smugly, “if not a multitude of drops?” And what’s Cloud Atlas if not a multitude of terrible details and unwatchable moments? When Hanks throws a walking cliché of a stuffy British critic of literature from the rooftop terrace of a high-rise, I very seriously considered walking out; by the time Hugo Weaving shows up in drag as a nursing home bully, I was ready to renounce film criticism altogether and take up a less emotionally or psychologically taxing occupation, like the operator of an emergency suicide hotline (in fact, I could have made use of one myself by the end). The problem isn’t that this is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life; the problem is that it’s seven of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life glued together haphazardly, their inexorable badness amplified by their awkward juxtaposition. Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski wanted to make a movie unlike any other, and they certainly did: Cloud Atlas is a unique and totally unparalleled disaster.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 6—16.