It's clear that CLOUD ATLAS was very difficult to make. Telling 6 stories at once, in 6 different genres, with a repeating ensemble cast should be a nightmare if you want to do it well. Indeed, the only thing everyone seems to agree on in all the reactions to this film is that it's ambitious. But the thing I can't figure out is if there's anything else. I can't tell if this is a difficult to unpack because its depth is hidden so well, or difficult to unpack because there is no secret compartment. It's just empty.
Remarkably, no one seems to be calling it "pretentious," which is a tag that seems to follow every film that aspires to be important. Part of the reason for that is, despite the interlocking stories, it's kind of a simple film. Individually, the stories (ranging from a seafaring slavery play to a post-apocalyptic journey) are so one dimensional and simple by necessity. They're slider burgers. Nothing fancy, because they want you to eat a lot of them. Taken together, I can appreciate the tapestry and work, but it doesn't seem to add up to much more than a 3 hour rumination on the interconnection of lives.
At the same time, that seems like the wrong assessment. The sheer scope and ambition keeps insisting to viewers that there's a lot more to this work, like something with such a degree of difficulty couldn't be so flat and empty, there must be some threads you have to unravel. How you confront the challenge, or the illusion of the challenge, will determine how you receive the film. You will rub up against its complexity and see the tip of the iceberg, as Roger Ebert does, or you will take a step back and see a big stupid ice cube, as Pajiba's Daniel Carlson does. When confronted with the question of whether a piece of art has depth, we tend to look at the credibility of the people behind it. It's hard for me to go this route, as the Wachowskis seem to straddle the line. They often seem to possess great ideas, but execute them in annoying or clumsy ways.
There are ideas in CLOUD ATLAS that spark your creative imagination, moments where you suspect what they might do with the themes and gimmick, but they will never pan out. The prime example is in the playing around with souls and "reincarnation," which is metatextually played out by having the ensemble cast play characters of different genders and ethnicities over 6 different timelines. You think: perhaps there's something here about how each of these actors progress through the century, perhaps there's some kind of intertextual character arc here if I watch it again and take notes. Hugo Weaving's character, for example, is always a villain, while Tom Hanks seems to play a villain until, in the 1970's he decides to become a corporate whistleblower in the name of love. Is there more? Is there a whole 'nother movie hidden inside this one?
Partway through the film, it becomes a game of keeping tabs on who becomes what, but then someone sketches out a map and you find out that, no, not really, that doesn't reveal anything significant. The theory is especially muddied by the fact that Tom Hanks' 2012 character doesn't display the turn of alignment as a murdering thug, Hugo Weaving's post-apocalyptic reincarnation is a figment of the imagination, and some actors do double duty in a single timeline (Halle Berry as both a futuristic anthropologist and one of the primitive valley tribe people she studies.)
A word on the use of makeup and costuming to change ethnicities, though, since this is one of the aspects that got a lot of press in the lead up: Politically, the "race bending" turns out to not be a problem. While it isn't always successful and is often distracting, it insulates itself from offensiveness by having a diverse cast that is stretched in every direction. I don't think any "yellowface" accusations are fair in the context of the film. If it's a problem, it's because these things are hard to do convincingly, not because it recalls an awful racist history.
Another avenue they don't seem to pounce on is the way in which each story connects to each other. You can draw a line from the very first 1849 story all the way to the 2321 post-apocalypse story, but only in the most superficial, meaningless ways. The connection is already drawn with the reuse of actors, they only make it more of a gimmick with the little winks and cameos that have no bearing on the story.
The prime examples of this are in the 1973 pulp story starring Halle Berry. To connect it with the previous story in 1936, Halle Berry as a journalist tries to follow up a lead and finds a vinyl recording of classical music to be intimately familiar. That's because in a previous life, she was the composer's lonely wife. That's all well and good, except it doesn't mean anything to her story in 1973 and it's ultimately inconsequential, like a celebrity cameo. It's an entire scene that adds up to an elbow nudge. Similarly, her neighbor is a young boy named Jose Gomez. The next story, set in modern day 2012, stars a book editor and he briefly mentions a detective story manuscript by Jose Gomez. That, also, is it. Jose Gomez in 1973 adds nothing to the story, his sole purpose is to ham-fistedly connect to the 2012 story. All he does in 1973 is remark "This would be a good story!" in the most winkingest of writing.
There is no baton pass from story to story that leads to an ultimate victory and therefore an ultimate lesson. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that would be too simple, predictable and gimmicky. That's fair, but the finished product reveals that it's still a gimmick, just one that people are willing to write off as hollow. I'm sure the intent is to show that our lives echo through time ("From womb to tomb!" "Our lives are not our own!" "Death is but a door!") but the movie doesn't seem to give us any reason for that to be important. I know it sounds like that's "the ultimate truth" and therefore needs no qualification, no denouement, but if that revelation comes to us the second we see Jim Sturgess in awkward Korean makeup, what's the point of the rest of the film? By hour 3, it hasn't said anything that it didn't say in the first 20 minutes.
In SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, a film far headier than this that was often derided as pretentious, there's a house that is always on fire. It's not the weirdest thing about the movie, but it is one of the details that people have been trying to deconstruct, to find some ultimate symbolism or theme to this bit of randomness. In an interview, Charlie Kaufman said simply: "Well, it doesn't speak to you. It speaks to other people. There are other things in the film that maybe, hopefully, will speak to you." To be a little bit reductive: It's what you make of it from your experience.
I wonder, then, if that's the best we can do with CLOUD ATLAS. There's certainly a lot bursting out of the movie, and finding the signal in the noise is fruitless in that case. Perhaps the only idea behind it is to get you to find something that resonates with your life and human condition, instead of revealing one for you. If that's the intended way for it to bear fruit, then it's a low-hanging one for such an ambitious endeavor.