Still, Cloud Atlas has moments when you can’t help but let its grandeur consume you. The vigor of its storytelling compels you to focus on the characters, to empathize with their struggles, to marvel at the intricacies of their worlds. The film rarely lingers, if ever; it just keeps feeding new details into each conflict with an unfailing enthusiasm. Stuff just keeps happening. But, inevitably, the illusion shatters and doubt pours in: Why is Tom Hanks wearing false teeth and a putty nose? Is that…Halle Berry pretending to be a white socialite? Why does Hugo Weaving appear to be playing a Beelzebub dandy? In the name of everything that is right and good in the world, does everyone in the future have meticulously waxed eyebrows?
In a different film, these questions could be ignored. The illusion could still survive. Cloud Atlas, however, pushes tension to the point of fatigue. There’s rarely dramatic release within each story, so there are few chances to dwell on the consequences of a plot point. (Thankfully, the meta-narrative lets off some steam whenever it revisits Tykwer’s surprisingly hilarious story about old folks busting out of an oppressive retirement home. It’s easily the best of the six.) As the details blur together in a stream of hyperactive sequences, each scene reveals itself to be a ridiculous stage for actors trapped in the uncanny valley. Because the Wachowskis and Tykwer fall short, Cloud Atlas can seem to be little more than a testing ground for silly accents and intricate makeup work.
The technical failures of the narrative, though, are merely screw-ups compared to the sappy dime-store philosophy Cloud Atlas peddles as its message. The great moral awakening of this film is that love and destiny are intertwined. That’s it. The personalities of lovebirds never clash, nor do they ever seem to exhibit themselves as anything but passive agents of their intense desire for one another. The characters lucky enough to be paired together bond like chemical agents, not like people. This is not an honest depiction of love — it’s a wistful longing for spiritual satisfaction.
In one of the film’s most cringingly on-the-nose scenes, a newly enlightened character takes a stand against his bigoted stepfather, declaring, ”All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended.” I imagine that a similar belief encouraged the Wachowskis and Tykwer to will Cloud Atlas into existence. But, as much as I admire their ambition, they did not transcend boundaries. They perpetuated an insulting idea about love that ignores the texture and depth of the relationships they revere as supremely important. Their lovers do not fight or hurt each other or make mistakes. They don’t change and learn and make themselves better for their partners. They are merely there, hand-in-hand, as wholly satisfied, wholly uninteresting couples. Is that love? No, never.