Minor thematic spoilers for "Cloud Atlas" below.
It's been six weeks since I took in "Cloud Atlas" on the big screen, yet I'm still not entirely sure what to make of the film. It's clearly astoundingly ambitious, with the sort of narrative plot device that would make lesser creative types shy away, but was all that effort actually in service of a grander story? Or is this another example of The Wachowskis biting off a little too much (cough "MatrixRevolutions" cough) plot? As with most big questions, the answers may not be completely satisfying or definitive, but let's explore the studio space together anyway.
"Cloud Atlas" is just about the only film that can boast six (or seven) plot points … spanning around 430 years. "Magnolia" is the first modern film that comes to mind when you're talking multiple threads, but Paul Thomas Anderson's classic work all transpired during the present. The reason this sort of thing, multiple plots, isn't often done is because it's ridiculously difficult to keep even one narrative arc in play, much less six (or seven). "Love Actually" was another movie that pulled off the "so much going on!" vibe, but again, it was all set in present day. "The Fountain" spanned a thousand years, but only featured three separate plots.
"Cloud Atlas" directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski have taken their 160 minute film, broken it into pieces across multiple generations, and woven it all back together, embedding a few central themes as connective tissue. This was, no doubt it, insanely difficult to execute, and the meetings where they wrote the script had to have been intense, featuring loads of caffeine and outlines. As such, and at the very least, let's tip our caps to a trio of directors that shot for the stars, regardless of where the bullet ended up.
What went wrong? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, the main issue of "Cloud Atlas" is that one of the plots clearly stands out as the most interesting. I speak of the Sonmi-451 segment, and my informal polling among fellow "Cloud"-watchers indicates that this part should have been it's own movie. This story line has all the elements The Wachowskis do best, it's set 130 years in the future, it's dystopian, it's fluid. It is riveting material. But they don't stay with it long enough, because there are five (or six) other plot lines to service! Which is the precise downside of the method employed: not all of the settings can be dynamic.
The oldest of the plots, taking place in 1849, is rather simple. There's a bad guy, a good guy, and another guy who wants to help the good guy. This is not an indicator of high level achievement, it's the same arc just about every filmmaker uses at some point in their career. It's a critical issue - should "Cloud Atlas" be judged against the success of each individual story line? Or taken as a whole? Unfortunately, the answer is "yes." Just as with the film itself, the footing is evasive, the conclusions constantly shifting.
Is "Cloud Atlas" too ambitious? That depends how you define the question. Yes, it's far too ambitious to dominate the box office, much as "Magnolia" was, but the question shouldn't be answered in purely commercial terms. It's not too ambitious to influence a generation of young filmmakers, and we very well could point to "Cloud Atlas" as the ship that launched a thousand movies from junior directors. "Cloud Atlas" certainly makes it safe for young creative types to present almost any story at all, no matter the level of complexity, because The Wachowskis blazed a mainstream trail.
Thus, in the final reckoning, while "Cloud Atlas" is too ambitious to deliver a fully realized story, it isn't too ambitious overall, because too much ambition is like too much joy - there's simply no such thing.