Everything is connected. Or so filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) would have you believe. Based on the David Mitchell novel, Cloud Atlas tells six separate stories (from the 1800s to a dystopian future) interspersed throughout the film with one story somehow being told in another, creating a (loose) connective tissue with the same actors playing different roles in each story.
The film (or collection of films) boasts a large, impressive ensemble cast. However, they are basically the only actors you ever see. Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Halle Berry, Ben Wishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon play almost all the parts.
"Letters from Zedelghem" (directed by Tykwer) about a struggling, gay composer (Whishaw) in 1930s Belgium was the strongest, most compelling story. Wishaw carried the story beautifully with a playful innocence. It was the most complete and fully realized entry, involving most of the actors effectively and building into a satisfying narrative. Notably, Tykwer's three segments felt stronger than the three directed by the Wachowskis.
It's difficult to avoid the race bending aspect of the film's production. Most notably, British actor Jim Sturgess in one of his many roles, plays a Korean man in the distant future. With makeup and prothestics, his face is made to look more Asian. Instead, he looks like a weird alien. It's more distracting than anything. Other characters play different races and in one case, gender throughout the different stories. However, Sturgess' "yellowface" was very prominent and an anchor in the overall narrative. Furthermore, some of the makeup is just terrible, trying to age characters as well as an inexplicable parade of bad prosthetic noses.
Mixing the six different narratives, being told concurrently was well crafted enough with superb editing and effective montages connecting the stories together seamlessly. The haunting musical score tied each narrative together well. Cloud Atlas featured some breathtaking effects, scenery, and world building, but suffered from a lack of flourish and finish. The better segments felt short shifted while the weak ones were bloated. On the whole, the film was comparable to a compressed, three-hour version of Lost.
Clout Atlas is a huge, sprawling film, full of ambition, implementing different filmmaking styles, and told across civilizations. Some of it is awe inspiring and beautiful while other parts are hokey and unremarkable. It works better as individual stories than a whole. The filmmakers don't quite achieve the connectivity and thematic unity they aim for. It's messy, bold, interesting, and frustrating, all at the same time.