If you could grade a film for effort, Cloud Atlas would get an A+. Adapted from the “unfilmable” novel by David Mitchell, it runs nearly three hours, through six interlocking stories made by three directors (The Matrix series’ Wachowski siblings and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer). Those stories run span more than half a millenia, from the mid-19th century through an indeterminate post-apocalyptic future. The same actors are cast in different (often parallel) roles in each segment, and there is nothing linear here, with frequent cross-cutting between segments to help define their relationships. This is a staggeringly complex project, and the effort to assemble it is difficult to imagine.
Unfortunately, effort isn’t all that counts, and the problems with Cloud Atlas are many and insurmountable. While it’s no exaggeration to say this is the best film the Wachowskis have directed since the first Matrix film, that’s an extremely low bar. And sadly, the high school journal philosophizing that made the Matrix sequels so unbearable is ever-present here, often in wispy Terrence Malick-like voiceovers that are as trite as they are tedious. Many of these stories, even with the lengthy running time, feel too lightly sketched for the epic import they’re given. There simply isn’t enough time to cover them sufficiently, and so only the lightest fare (a present-day comedic plot in which Jim Broadbent’s character escapes from a locked-down retirement community) works; the heaviest segments simply drag. As a result, the film feels every bit as dauntingly long as its running time suggests, and getting through it can be a test of both endurance and patience.
It’s not all bad. The cross-cutting between different timelines during tense moments is done masterfully, so well that at times I thought the movie might even be saved from itself. And all the performers here display skillful ranges, playing entirely different characters within the same movie, even if they’re often betrayed by distractingly poor makeup jobs, particularly when someone is made up to look like a different race. (At my screening, the makeup produced unintended laughter in the theater on multiple occasions.) All of this comes in a gorgeously shot package that blends the past, present, and future into diverse, lushly imagined realities that at least manage the task of feeling like they’re from a single work. If only that work actually succeeded in fulfilling its lofty aspirations.over at Washingtonian.
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