Laudably ambitious, for which we, er, laud it, although it's far from perfect and understandably too esoteric for many tastes
There's rather a lot to recap in Cloud Atlas, were you foolish enough to make an attempt to try. However, Mama didn't raise no fool, so instead let's give it a rather more glossed over and probably amazingly confusing overview.
The central premise of the film is to cut between a number of stories, with a number of different styles, happening over a number of time frames, with a consistent number of actors. So, for example, you might have Jim Broadbent running around in a contemporary retirement home farce, only for a few moments later to find him as Captain of a galley sailing back from the New World.
Amongst these smaller stories we have such wildly divergent characters and stories as Ben Wishaw' young composer apprenticing himself to Broadbent's cantankerous old master, Halle Berry's 70's investigative journalist uncovering a conspiracy at Hugh Grant's nuclear power plant. A futuristic tale of oppression and genetically modified servants, and a even further futuristic, post-fall tribal Tom Hanks helping an outsider find a satellite uplink. And that's only the half of it.
Oh, and in all of these stories, Hugo Weaving is evil. Oooh, that Weaving.
Now, Cloud Atlas is not only biting off more than most films could chew, it's biting off more than most ten hour mini-series could chew. While that does leave some of the stories within the story as perhaps a little under-served, some skilful editing, direction and a clutch of really great acting performances means that Cloud Atlas pulls off a very high percentage of the stunts it attempts.
For a film that is, in your boring linear Earthling time, pretty damn long, it really doesn't feel it, whipping by at a grand old pace helped, no doubt, by its very frequent swapping of narrative focus. In fact my only main technical bone to pick with the execution of the film is also partly its strength. The effects, make up and prosthetics used to give the actors such a wide range of looks and characters is quite often breathtakingly well done, with actors occasionally looking completely, convincingly unrecognisable. On other, thankfully rarer, occasions, it's done so badly that its presumably an elaborate practical joke, particularly everything in Future-Korea, which is borderline racist in its hamfistedness.
The very things that make Cloud Atlas such an interesting and unique cinematic experience are also the very things that ensure it can't be an unqualified success. While admittedly it does carry off it's sharp changes in narrative tone far more often than seems reasonably possible, there's still too many times where it's either disorienting or just plain weird, which is never a pleasant experience for an audience.
That said, it's certainly the most unique, grandiose and lavish experiment you'll see in a cinema this year, and possibly this decade. There's surely a broad base of appeal for that, no matter your opinion of the central (let's face it) gimmick of the film. If you do find your teeth set on edge by what is, I suppose, the logical conclusion of the thankfully somewhat abated in recent years fractured narrative technique, then this could we be three hours of torture, but it'll also be visually appealing, well written and well performed torture, and a torture that covers so many different styles of torture that you'll probably like at least some of the torture strands so much that it won't feel too torture-y. I must stop writing torture so much, it's like I'm in the Bush Administration.</CUTTING EDGE SATIRE>
Overall, I have to say I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and found its unique narrative bouncing to be an engaging exercise in film-making. This is certainly not to say that it pulls off every move that it tries, more to say that I'm happy that there are film-makers willing to make these moves. It was a big gamble, and for me it pays off although given how much it's pushing against conventional narrative, and given the only vaguely explained rationale for going through these narratives, I can't really blame anyone for deciding it's not for them and giving it a wide berth. Box office numbers would seem to suggest that this is what came to pass, but I'd urge those to at least give this a chance on rental or streaming, where it's perhaps a little less daunting in scope from the comfort of your armchair. You might just like it.
Halle Berry (loads of people)
Jim Broadbent (loads of people)
Hugo Weaving (loads of people)
Jim Sturgess (loads of people)
Doona Bae (loads of people)
Ben Whishaw (loads of people)
Keith David (loads of people)
Hugh Grant (loads of people)