1. I've never read the book Cloud Atlas, but I bet it's good. Judging from the film, the book must be insanely ambitious—narratively and stylistically—clearly vying to be no less than some sort of grand binding theory of everything, throughout history, forever. That sort of ambition can work on the page, where stories set in pre-WWII England and seventies San Francisco and "Nea So Copros," 150 years in the future, can all unfold alongside each other in equal weight and scale. We can make our own imaginative connections when we read novels. During movies, the filmmakers usually try to do it for us, and it very rarely works. Cloud Atlas the book coheres, I imagine; Cloud Atlas the movie is a big huge ball of crazy. It has its moments, and the viewer can't help but admire just how big-hearted it is, how deeply invested it is in its own lunacy. But that doesn't make it any less nuts.
2. Let's see if I can keep all the stories straight here: A Pacific Islands man is being poisoned by his doctor while trying to free a slave; a musician helps an old master with his compositions and writes to his old lover; an idealistic journalist tries to take down a malevolent nuclear power corporation; a whimsical book editor tries to escape from a nursing home; a clone tries to save herself and the world from a futuristic evil; and a funny-talkin' woodsman guides a spaceship-toting, funny-talkin' woman to the top of a sacred mountain. (There. I did it. I am very proud of myself.) These stories overlap and connect with one another in myriad unconvincing ways. (I have no idea why the '70s journalist is spending time reading letters from a '30s composer while people are trying to kill her, for example.) There appears to be a connecting device involving letters and language that should stay on the page—on screen, it's stilted and clumsy. The movie never connects its stories visually, which is the only real reason to make a movie in the first place.
3. There's so much going on here that it's honestly difficult to stay on top of everything for a while. The first 45 minutes of the nearly three-hour film can feel like someone trying to describe an old Twilight Zone episode they saw years ago and only sort of remember. It feels like a story that you're supposed to understand better than you do. The stories start clicking together after a while, though, and the movie develops a certain rhythm, almost like a musical, with the stories doing their own thing and then meeting for an Overarching Narrative Theme Established Through Narration, like a chorus. The problem is similar to the problem with Babel and Gomorrah and other so-called "Hyperlink" movies: just because there are several stories going on doesn't necessarily make any of them inherently more interesting. For my money, the composer and his lover is the best story—it's the one that feels real loss—while the poisoned-by-his-doctor-guy and the nursing-home escapee are the most out-of-place and obvious. The movie never figures out a consistent tone, either. For a film that's supposed to be an overarching connecting storyline, it sure does lurch from terror to high drama to slapstick comedy to action thriller so violently that you'll get a little seasick.
4. There must be a reincarnation theme that's more vividly explained in the book, because Cloud Atlas makes what, let's face it, is a highly dubious decision to cast the same actors in multiple roles across the various stories. The idea of reincarnation, or the same people living the same stories throughout the centuries, is one thing, but having Halle Berry in whiteface playing a '30s debutante, or Hugh Grant in war paint as a rampaging warrior, is another entirely. This is when Cloud Atlas veers most dangerously toward camp. The viewer ends up just looking for individual characters played by individual performers who stand out and, perhaps not surprisingly, they're the ones featuring the smallest makeup effects. Tom Hanks is particularly good as the tortured post-apocalyptic woodsman—Hanks feels out of place under all the prosthetics, but he still has a fun time (Hanks is always more enjoyable when he's challenging himself). Best of all is Ben Whishaw as the young composer who believes in love but knows its limitations. Those two characters simply ask the actors to do what they do best. It might sound fun to give Hugh Grant a ton of old-age makeup and have him pretend to be some sleazy old capitalist pig, but it kinda isn't.
5. It's tough to hate Cloud Atlas: The filmmakers have such apparent reverence for the material, and such a desire, however quixotic, to bring it to the screen, that I ended up feeling empathy for their plight rather than scorn. But it was a bad idea to try to make this movie. There's just too much going on beneath the surface, too many connections that are meant to be real but subtle and tenuous, far too oblique for a movie. (Also: For the creators of The Matrix, a lot of the effects are surprisingly chintzy-looking. Even at $100 million, you can see some cut corners.) What must appear profound on the page comes across as portentous, even cheesy, on the screen. Cloud Atlas would be an excellent advertisement for you to read the book, if you hadn't just ruined it by watching the movie.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.