Defining just exactly what Cloud Atlas is, is nearly as hard as explaining why it works as well as it does. I can tell you that the movie tells six separate short stories by mixing them together and attempting to draw connections to them. Two of those stories are hard science fiction. One involves a future where genetically engineered women are used as slaves. The other involves an even farther off future where civilization has fallen and the last remnants of humanity seek escape.
The connections between all six stories work spectacularly even though the threads between them, beyond an inexplicably recurring birthmark and the re-occurrence of the same actors playing characters of different ages, genders and sexes, are fairly thin. This shouldn’t work, but it does.
It works because each of these short stories is so incredibly engaging that the world going on outside fades away in whatever moment you happen to be in. It works in a broader sense too, because Cloud Atlas’s has grander ambitions than simple storytelling. There are big ideas here, ideas too big to be told with only one tale. Unfortunately, not all of these big ideas always ring true.
The one that does is the one that most clearly links all six stories together. The thing all six have in common is the idea of people working together to defy conventions. Whether it’s a white man (Jim Sturgess) helping an escaped slave (David Gyasi) in the past, a group of elderly nursing-home patients hatching a plot to escape an evil nurse (Hugo Weaving), or a villager (Tom Hanks) in a far off future defying the devil (Hugo Weaving) to help a visitor (Halle Berry) send an SOS, every story follows rule breakers. Sometimes doing the right thing means breaking with tradition.
If that were the only big idea in Cloud Atlas then maybe I wouldn’t have walked away feeling a little muddled. But it tries to cram so many big ideas into its stories that those tend to muddy the tenuous connections the film forms on its own.
I’m not sure it matters, though, that the movie ever coalesces into the soundly constructed, ideological whole I wanted it to be. The truth is I’m not even sure if that’s what Cloud Atlas directors Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer are going for. If you’ve read any other reviews of the film so far, no one really seems to understand what Cloud Atlas is. If you see it, you probably won’t either. What I can tell you is that there’s not a boring moment in here, anywhere. Buy a ticket and you’ll be entranced, excited, and utterly engaged by one of the most ambitious movies of the year.
It doesn’t matter if Cloud Atlas ends up being more than the sum of its parts when the parts are this good.