At first Cloud Atlas feels like a lumbering, disjointed choir, but gradually the lines weave together into a grand, ambitious, flawed spectacle. Granted, these threads and themes are obvious within the first thirty minutes, at times insultingly so, but seeing where each narrative leads and how various combinations parallel each other makes for a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The separate storylines vary in quality, with the most interesting being those in the future, but they each feel vital in their own way.
The lone exception to this is the escape from the retirement home. It’s mostly comedic relief, barely, a source of inspiration for others and may illustrate how simple stories can be given weight, but there are other, more worthy ways of demonstrating that through the other narratives.
The fact that 90 percent of the film is gorgeous makes the times when the effects don’t work standout all the more. As the most expensive indie movie ever, the cost is very clearly placed on the screen. Sets and locations are beautiful, as is the filming of those places. Yet at times the simple effect of superimposing characters over a background looks astonishingly fake, action sequences suffer from a lack of physics (a frustrating influence of the Matrix movies) and chases have the uninteresting riding-on-rails feel that plagued Speed Racer.
Far more distracting however is the horrible make-up when actors play characters of different races. The attempt results in characters that are at best weird-looking and at worst downright offensive (Hugo Weaving’s Korean makeup for instance looks like a Vietnam War-era propaganda figure).
While the overall look is sold a greater pleasure is found in hearing how the dialects and accents change between the different stories. It may be disjointed to go from 18th Century British to 22nd Century islander, but once the conventions and patterns are established, it’s fun to consider how one led to the other. That’s where Cloud Atlas works on a whole. The theme is not groundbreaking, and repeated over and over, but for a story this ambitious, a little hand-holding can be forgiven. After all, it’s not the individual pieces that count. They’re all just drops in a much larger ocean.[subscribe2]