Last night I saw CLOUD ATLAS, the new SF movie from Lana and Andy Wachowski (THE MATRIX) and Tom Tykwer, from the much acclaimed novel by David Mitchell. This one had a lot of advance attention, plus a budget of 102 million dollars. The results are absorbing but mixed.
The film interweaves six different narratives, set in the mid-1800's high seas, 1936 Cambridge, 1973 San Francisco, 2012 England, 22nd century Neo-Seoul, and an unidentified future location "106 years after the Fall," when Earth has reverted to barbarism. The same people, reincarnated (but unaware of this) turn up in different story lines, which are also connected by artifacts, minor characters, and theme. Jumps in space and time are frequent, unheralded, and occasionally disorienting.
The pluses: First, and probably most important, I was never bored. I wanted to find out what happened to everybody. This is a long movie, but unlike during some shorter ones, I was not fidgety, distracted, or aware of how long I had been sitting in an uncomfortable theater seat.
Second, it is great fun to identify the actors in their various incarnations, including those heavily disguised by the artistry of Hollywood make-up men. Who would have ever expected to see Hugh Grant, of all people, as a cannibalistic barbarian in war paint?
Third, the movie is visually gorgeous. Each setting is detailed and individually colored (the totalitarian Neo-Seoul is mostly deep blues, reds, and purples). The matching-action cuts -- a door closing in one narrative followed by a different door flung open in a different narrative -- form interesting connective devices.
Also connective is the overall theme: the fight for freedom against oppression. Each narrative does this, whether the oppressor is the state, an established artistic colleague with power, a warring tribe, a corrupt corporation, the institution of slavery, or (in the only humorous scenario) a despotic nursing home.
The negatives: The theme becomes preachy by the end. Especially at the end, where at least three characters give "freedom" speeches worthy of Willam Shatner as James T. Kirk. Enough, enough--we got it, already.
There are also some annoying plot devices, such as the fact (so common in Hollywood) that the bad guys cannot shoot straight. Even when the odds are twenty to one, they miss hitting the hero. Any of the heroes.
Third, and most damning for me, is that these six narratives are so packed in that they don't allow for anything like character development. I asked myself: If each of these six plots were to be used in separate movies, would they be original or interesting? Probably not. Certainly not original: much if not all of the Neo-Seoul narrative looks like a combination of BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984. On the other hand, they're not in separate movies, and character development is not the point here, so you will have to decide for yourself if that matters.
Bottom line: a good movie, but not a great one.