With The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer literally throwing a critic off the roof of a building to his death in the opening moments of the nearly three-hour "Cloud Atlas," it's clear that they aren't concerned in the slightest with how this ambitious effort will be received. And you certainly have to give the trio of directors some respect for their approach, which tag teams an all-star cast, gives them multiple roles and spreads the story across nearly a half dozen time periods. But for all their boldness in narrative approach, "Cloud Atlas" is also a mess, with an attempt to mix its various genres under a universal thematic banner that never quite coheres.
The first thing that should be noted however, is that of all the elements that were likely to upend the picture, the stunt approach to casting actually works quite well. The thespians all seamlessly blend into their roles, and none of the choices are particularly jarring or take away from the drama on screen. And when the parts do draw laughs, it's usually intentional (Tom Hanks as a bruising Ray Winstone-ish author is particularly funny) and Hugh Grant acquits himself well in a handful of atypical, villain-esque parts. But it's just too bad these players are given nothing better to do than feature in a handful of rather undercooked genre excursions that feel like they're from five or six different movies.
From a rather bland "All The President's Men"-style, '70s-set thriller to futuristic sci-fi to an 1800s sea-faring adventure to – most out of place – a British comedic caper (we're not kidding), the actual stories themselves aren't all that compelling on their own. Hell, there's even a movie within the movie. And while the transitions between them are mostly seamless, the fates of the characters are difficult to get invested in, mostly because we don't spend much time with them. But perhaps this isn't so important when the Wachowskis and Tykwer have bigger thematic fish to fry.
There are a number of throughlines to "Cloud Atlas" that reach for profundity, but land with all the insight of a discounted New Age self help book. "Our lives are not our own, we are bound to each other past and present," Bae Doona's prophetess Sonmi-451 says with great importance. "Love could outlive death" and "Death is only a door" are more of the sagacious platitudes she shares in a film that beats these ideas into the ground, rather than letting them arise on their own. But worse, they never for a moment feel organically drawn or sincere. And coupled with a score that makes the audience know when it's supposed to be moved and/or learning something, the directness of "Cloud Atlas" often renders its various messages inert or eye-rollingly glib (and that's not counting a consumerism theme that's introduced and swiftly forgotten about).
And then there's the Wachowskis now strained up-with-people revolutionary politics that after "The Matrix" and "V For Vendetta" feels like they have nothing new to add to the conversation. With a common distinction in each of the stories being the struggle of the oppressed agasinst the oppressor, and the general unfairness of separation by class, gender or race, "Cloud Atlas" can only muster up a rather tepid obversation that "the gulf is an illusion" without really and truly doing the hard work of addressing the power structures in place that maintain these divisions, except in the most superficial manner.
But perhaps most disappointing of all with "Cloud Atlas" is how dully unimaginative the film really is. Produced independently and outside the studio system (with Warner Bros. picking up the rights for distribution), you would think it would allow the opportunity for both the Wachowskis and Tykwer to really push this audacious premise to the limit. But at least for The Wachowskis, this may be their most mainstream and blandly drawn effort to date. The film's futuristic Neo Seoul is mostly a cityscape culled from any number of sci-fi movies in the last decade, with a lot of flatscreen walls and motion sensor movments (and the resulting action setpieces within are shockingly conventional particularly from the duo that brought bullet-time to cinemas). And in the last third of the film, when the plotlines begin to resolve themselves, we're treated to no less than three different chase sequences, none of them memorable or inventive. The people who you expect to step in and save a life or fall in love come through, and when one character says in the film's rare moments of self-awareness "This would make a good book," we had to keep from groaning out loud.
On a technical level, we suppose the film is an accomplishment, with costumes and period details mostly coming through, but in most other ways, this $100 million effort offers fortune cookie social commentary put in a blender with a handful of thinly interlocking stories, in a failed attempt to say something meaningful about the human condition, and how modes of good and evil perpetuate themselves across centuries. Too long by at least a half hour, and both dull and repetitive as it goes on, "Cloud Atlas" reaches for envelope-pushing storytelling but never delivers on its promise. [C-]