An enjoyable weaving-together of stories across space and time, Cloud Atlas is at its best when it's at its least message-y. Rarely have I felt so bombarded by a movie's thesis. The prosthesis-heavy makeup, 172-minute running time, and an enormously unfortunate use of dialect also threaten to scupper the film, but for me there is a saving grace in a clutch of deeply human stories.
The message, though, clangs around like a bolt in a steel drum. Ultimately, its ubiquity is matched by its simplicity: we are all connected, and our present actions will have consequences across future generations. In case you fail to hear it explicitly every few minutes in the dialogue, the Wachowskis decided to include a thorough exposition of the idea in a subversive broadcast late in the film. "From womb to tomb..." intones a central character into a microphone. As violence again bursts out in front of her, she delivers a speech to the world that sallies forth with all the rhetorical power of a few rejected Hallmark cards. The simple meagerness of the film's moral vision comes into a harsh light when this climactic piece of oratory is set alongside that of another film from a very different time.
From Cloud Atlas:
Sure, the comparison is unfair—The Great Dictator is unique in film history for the context of its creation, which is essential to its power and importance—but I also find it illuminating as far as it goes. The Wachowski's sentimental New Age-y spiritualism just doesn't fare too well next to Chaplin's urgent humanism. Make of it what you will. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas for its accomplishments with a complicated narrative, for several of its stories and its sheer ambition, but the transcendence it aims for seems to remain consistently out of reach.