The Beatles’ two driving creative forces — John Lennon and Paul McCartney, just in case you forgot — differed in their approach as a lot of teams do, and while their artistic differences usually led to each improving the other’s songs, it also sometimes led to conflict, especially near the end. There’s the Abbey Road medley, for example, which takes up most of side two of that classic album. It’s one of the group’s most justifiably praised works, but Lennon himself was never happy with it, because he had a bias against medleys in general. “I think it’s junk,” he recalled, “because it was just bits of songs thrown together.” To Paul, placing unfinished songs next to each other created a context of its own; to John, who once strung a bunch of unrelated tape loops together and made them sound like the apocalypse, context was organic.
You can argue that approach all day. But the Wachowskis’ new epic of actual epics, Cloud Atlas, takes the McCartney approach in adapting David Mitchell’s acclaimed 2004 novel for the big screen. Mitchell told six completely different stories in chronological order: three in the past, one in the present, and one each in pre- and post-apocalyptic futures. The former brothers (Larry is now Lana) have altered the formula; in the book, the stories are left half-told, mirrored in the very last tale, then doubled back to the beginning, but the Wachowskis — and Run Lola Run writer-director Tom Twyker assisting them God knows where — have deemed it necessary to tell all six stories at once. This is ostensibly in service of the original source’s main themes: that all our lives are connected, that avatars regenerate in any society, that the individual must always fight the tyranny of the tribe, and that every present story is someone else’s future mythology.
This approach undoes everything that’s right, and there’s quite a bit right, about Cloud Atlas. Action is endlessly interrupted; when one story begins to pick up steam, we’re suddenly stranded in the middle of another, and not in such a way as to provide a telling contrast or even an interesting juxtaposition. What little connective tissue there is comes from endless, thuddingly obvious voiceovers that occasionally link one scene to the next with platitudes about how humanity repeats its mistakes, and how we’re all interconnected, the circle of life, you’ve heard it all before. It’s a gimmick, no more, and one that’s compounded by the W’s decision to have the same cast switch up roles from story to story, to the extent of switching gender, moral compass, and even race. In the novel, a birthmark alerts the reader that each protagonist is essentially rebirthing an important role, if not quite reincarnating the same soul. The film version, by contrast, switches the birthmark from one actor to the next, and between characters with different moralities. The six-stories-at-once structure turns out not to be as confusing as you might imagine, since Atlas spends just enough time setting each tale up before they all start to spin, but the philosophy is horribly confused. Forget redemption: if there’s some sort of ethical purifying inherent in Tom Hanks’ very uneven portrayals, in which he moves from a pro-slavery doctor to a insignificant hotel manager to a corporate whistleblower to a murderous thug, the movie’s pretty damn inscrutable as to what it might be.
It’s a waste, too, because at least two, maybe three of these six stories are Oscar-worthy even in their truncated form (each tale gets about 50 minutes total of screen time over the film’s three-hour total). Particularly noteworthy, in the parlance of the novel’s own “Twilight Zone”-like anthology titles, are “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” where Jim Sturgess’ pre-Civil War lawyer turns his back on family and career for the sake of abolition, and especially “An Orison of Sonmi~451,” where Doona Bae’s 22nd-century replicant sexbot leads a revolution after becoming sentient. Both are the most effective at proving the film’s thesis of civilization as slavery, but when either one gets going, we’re suddenly treated to Halle Berry on the run for exposing nuclear espionage or Jim Broadbent providing film’s only comic relief as a literary agent terrorized by Hugo Weaving’s nurse. You read that last part right. The metastunts are both distracting and overwhelming.
Clearly, the Matrix and V for Vendetta duo’s big personal statement was also meant to be their magnum opus, combining the ensemble cast and interlocking personal storylines of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia with the layered universes of Chris Nolan’s Inception. As usual, however, the writer-director team’s ambitions outstrip their work ethic: Anderson’s epic delicately and deliberately took the time to show the ripples each character formed in the others’ psyches, and Nolan’s established its motivations and emotional subtext firmly before allowing itself to mutate. Even that Abbey Road medley worked, as music scholars know, by unconsciously bringing parts of it written in the key of A back home to those in the key of C. The W’s just throw it all together and hope it’ll stick, bookended by a conceit not present in the novel where Tom Hanks’ post-apocalyptic goatherd escapes to another world with the help of technology. Only that story really proceeds from the one chronologically before it: Bae’s replicant serves as a direct inspiration for Hanks’ rebellion. The connective tissue between the other tales is so weak that it’s largely left up to fascinated audiences to fashion it.
Always master psychological manipulators, the Wachowskis probably intended this open-endedness; like Hanks’ other overrated picaresque journey, Forrest Gump, this one merely leaves a vague glow of empowerment, a phony idea of universal order. That vagueness has led to one of the greatest gulfs ever in critical consensus, but provocation isn’t enough: this, the biggest, most epic indie movie of all time, is in the end too ambitious to be a dull mess and too shallow to be a masterpiece. Instead, it serves as a mirror of nothing so much as the duo’s own career: ridiculously audacious, authentically entertaining, and more than a little silly. You’ll eventually be forced to watch it, and you’ll find that experience surprisingly easy; it’s the inspiration Cloud Atlas wants to evoke in you that’s harder to grasp.