To steal from Mother Goose (don’t worry, she’s dead): When Cloud Atlas is good, it’s very, very good; when it’s bad, Hugo Weaving is doing a drag impression of Nurse Ratched. The ambition of writers/directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Twyker, working from David Mitchell’s novel, is flabbergastingly impressive. Fueled by more humility than hubris, beautiful endeavors like this one are often observed when artists tilt at windmills — which isn’t to say nobody gets hurt. In short, Cloud Atlas is both nearly a masterpiece and nearly a disaster, but you have time to do both in 172 minutes.
This is a sextet of stories that all happen at the same time, which makes a synopsis more difficult than accepting Tom Hanks as a bald British street tough. Plus, the tales don’t so much “intersect” as they drunkenly bump into each other. The oldest story follows Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) as he voyages across the ocean in the accompany of a runaway slave (David Gyasi) and an evil doctor (Hanks). Chronologically, we move to the early 20th century and the sad tale of a kind man (James D’Arcy) and the love of his life, a tortured composer (Ben Whishaw) seeking fame through a partnership with an acclaimed but elderly genius (Jim Broadbent).
Moving on to 1973, Halle Berry plays an investigative journalist who stumbles on to the evil nuclear plans of Hugh Grant, with assistance from a scientist played by Hanks. In the present day, Broadbent plays a publisher who is roughed up by thug associates of one of his authors, which sends him on the run and lands him in an oppressive retirement community, where Nurse Noakes (Weaving) reigns. In the future, Sturgess plays a freedom fighter looking to liberate cloned slave laborers, specifically Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae). And finally, in the super far future, Hanks plays a tribal man confronted by a more civilized being (Berry) attempting to contact Earthlings who teleported to another planet.
OK, so some of that sounds crazy as hell. And it is. And we didn’t even get into the gender-bending, race-changing, heavily-make-up-covered multiple roles everyone plays. Grant plays a face-painted, mute cannibal for God’s sake. The sheer humanist passion, a nebulously spiritual, holistically uplifting suggestion that we are beholden to our fellow man and woman is the central thesis here. And yet, the feeling that should evoke, the stirring in that individual part of the collective consciousness inside each of us, only comes out in certain stories, specifically the one set the furthest in the past and the two set in the future.
The wacky, madcap “publisher on the run” storyline is painfully goofy; the star-crossed composer lover piece is sorely under-formed; the 1973 “nuclear thriller” feels pointless and much of the makeup throughout the whole film is distracting if not plain silly. But a movie that endeavors to conceive of a truly post-gendered, post-racial world, that tries so hard to reach a notion of some kind of secular divinity, can’t be dinged too hard for its imperfections. Cloud Atlas is equal parts failure and triumph, boldly unafraid to splat into a wall while running full speed, just to see how fast it can go. It is art. And discussing whether it’s good or bad art is the best part.
— This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.