The trailer I saw for Cloud Atlas looked a lot like commercials for Blu-Ray collections. You know the ones, where you at first ask yourself "how can all of these scenes possibly fit in the same movie?" and then you realize "hey, that looks familiar," and immediately you figure out that they're putting together a mega-trailer, with the best scenes from some fantastic films (and a few stinkers) in order to convince you to buy Blu-Ray discs.
Cloud Atlas is a meta-story, if you will, built out of stories from in the lives of people in six different periods of modern history. The film is actually an awful lot like the trailers. You're in a sci-fi-futuristic version of Seoul, and then you're in early 20th-century London. And then San Francisco of 1973, and then a post-apocalyptic tribal village beset by cannibal barbarians sometime in the 23rd or maybe 24th century. And yes, there's a 19th-century sailing ship in there somewhere as well.
These spliced vignettes are changed up very quickly. If you step out to go to the bathroom, you'll miss CENTURIES of history. They might be centuries moving backwards, but still, you're going to miss them. This goes on for two hours and forty-nine minutes, and is, quite frankly, exhausting.
The film earns its "R" rating several times over, I believe. Murder, torture, and suicide all feature quite graphically. Throw in the nudity (not gratuitous -- it was there for the dehumanization, and worked brilliantly) and the sex (that may have been gratuitous -- I certainly would have told that part of the story differently) and this film has no need to count F-bombs to pull the trigger for language.
But oh sweet cellulose this is a beautiful film. I mean... wow. Every scene, every last one, was framed, lit, shot, edited, and posted for effect, and the effect is nigh on three hours of eye candy. Even (or perhaps ESPECIALLY) the most disturbing scenes are hauntingly gorgeous.
As for the meta-story, the over-arching point of the film, I didn't buy it. The connection hinted at in the trailers and in the framing story is tenuous at best, and never adequately explained. The musical elements were, to my ear (trained but out of practice) not pointed up enough in the score or the source music, and the mythos just didn't make sense. I haven't read the book -- perhaps it does a better job.
Unfortunately there were also a few moments where the central conceit, using the same actors over and over, became distracting, taking me right out of the story. Hugh Grant's angry old man makeup made him look like something out of Dick Tracy, and Doona Bae's transformation into a young red-headed European was creepy in an uncanny valley sort of way. Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess were nearly as creepy with epicanthic folds and stitched-in eyebrows. I'd rather not open the white-washing can-of-worms here, but I realize that racially-appropriate casting in Hollywood remains problematic, this movie may be symptomatic of that, and wow, that can is really full of worms.
Ultimately, for me, a review comes down to asking myself "how much fun did I have at the movie?" and then stacking the answer against the other stuff I've seen this year. By that scale, Cloud Atlas was less fun than Battleship, more fun than Looper, and stands as a shining example of why this scale makes me look like an utter cad at times. I mean, seriously. Battleship?