A viewer must go through several stages in order to absorb this long, dense movie. Phase 1 involves getting the lay of the land—becoming familiar with the characters in six different settings and time periods, from the 19th to the 24th century, played by many of the same actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, Susan Sarandon). This takes some doing, but it’s a challenge worth meeting.
Once you’ve sorted most of this out, it is easier to become engaged in the stories, which have a relationship to one another—direct in some cases and tangential or metaphoric in others. The stories from the past involve a young man who is sent to carry out his father’s business in the South Seas, a frustrated composer who finds work as an apprentice to an older man, and an investigative journalist who uncovers dark secrets that put her life in danger. The two segments set in the future don’t paint a pretty picture: in one, young Korean women work as slaves in a kind of pleasure palace, and in the other, humans have regressed to the level of cavemen in a brutal tribal culture.
Along the way you may wonder if there is relevance in having Jim Broadbent play an aging Scottish composer who’s past his prime (in 1936) as well as a hedonistic publisher who’s run out of options just as he’s enjoying a bit of success (in the present day)… or casting Hanks as a garrulous, greedy doctor on an ocean voyage in 1849 and a primitive everyman of the future. I don’t have a ready answer to this. Are the filmmakers commenting on the continuum of life by having familiar faces recur in each time period, or is this merely a gimmick meant to command our attention? There’s no question that it’s Hanks under all that prosthetic makeup in the seagoing story, for instance, but I accept it as one of the movie’s more entertaining conceits.
Alas, Phase 3 brings disappointment. The stories begin to feel protracted before they are finally resolved. What is worse, instead of offering insight into the human condition these diverse plotlines conclude in surprisingly ordinary ways. (One of them is foretold in a flippant reference to a 1970s science-fiction movie—but the denouement that follows is deadly serious. Not original or enlightening, but serious.)
Whether you walk away from this vast canvas with an optimistic or pessimistic view of mankind is your choice. On the one hand, the movie attempts to tell us that love conquers all. At the same time, we see that avarice and exploitation are a constant over the centuries, even though they take different forms.
Thus, the panorama of Cloud Atlas is—as I said—both exhilarating and disappointing. But I am unwilling to disparage the film as a whole because there is so much passion and invention in it.