Review originally published September 9, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
"Cloud Atlas" is like the entire "Matrix" trilogy in micro. It starts out absolutely brilliantly, then segues into a pretentious slog. It is ambitious and bold has many intensely clever moments, but to say it fails to come together is almost beside the point. It chooses a form in which to make its thesis that, while oftentimes artful, is ultimately detrimental to the movie. One is left wondering what the movie is hiding, why the three-card Monte style won't just let you get a good look at the story to judge it on its own.
"Cloud Atlas" is actually six short narratives set in different time periods, like a double of "The Hours" or "Intolerance" plus two. For extra flavor, the stories are ostensibly different genres, too — historical adventure, costume drama, mystery, Miramax-y comedy, space opera and "Lost"-like heavy allegory. There's a rep theater's worth of actors playing different roles, with the same actor having similar characteristics in each of the sequences. (E.G. Hugo Weaving is a baddie whether an monocle'd German prior to WWII, a hired killer in a leather jacket, a Romulan-looking enforcer or a blonde-wigged Nurse Ratched type in an old folks' home.)
After introducing the six settings (the penultimate in New Seoul — a pun — and the last in the far future after a catastrophe/war) there begins the long march of slowly explaining just how the stories are all connected. In addition to a comet-like birthmark shared by someone in each period, there is some sort of record left from the time before that is discovered by the next in line. They range from a published journal to letters to a manuscript to a movie-within-the-movie to some sort of futuristic info document.
These little mind-trip connections are the red meat of this film. One character says something and is "answered" by the actions somewhere else until everything onscreen doesn't merely represent what's actually happening, but resonates with five different echoes. During its sustained second act, some scenes don't last more than ten seconds until they flash to one of the other five stories.
"Cloud Atlas" seems to think that dazzling you with this remarkable kaleidoscope and some vague references to standing up for what is right is enough. As far as I'm concerned, it really isn't.
Other than the final sequence, there's nothing really all that original actually taking place. The "New Seoul" sequence looks cool, but it is such a standard dystopian future play that a joke in one of the other times (intentionally) gives away the big twist. The early '70s Karen Silkwood-esque segment is flat-out dull, and the Age of Sail drama does nothing until its big, fat closing philosophical statement. The section set in the present, with Jim Broadbent as an unlucky publisher, is, however, extremely amusing.
It's the last segment, though, that's most creative, offering some of the niftiest sci-fi since "Battlestar Galactica." Tom Hanks lives with a primitive tribe speaking a blended patois that is 100 times cooler than Na'vi. He is visited by a way advanced science officer (or something) played by Halle Berry and the two climb a big rock searching for thematic closure.
Know this: not one of my gripes over "Cloud Atlas" has to do with it being confusing, or leaving any of its stories elliptical. The first hour is really quite gripping, and working to figure out just who the hell everyone is, how they connect and what's going on in their worlds is extremely rewarding. The problems come in the second act. Okay, we get what you're doing here, now what is it you want to say?
Each of the tales has an interesting moral nugget, but diced up and obscured as it is, the film makes it all seem much more heavy and secretive and important than it actually is. I strongly believe I would like this movie a lot more if it had the same script and same performances and just eased up on the editing. Maybe in five years I'll be retracting this review, but it's just how I feel. And if "Cloud Atlas" has a point (and it does... somewhere) it's that standing up in the face of popular opinion will, eventually, reap some reward.