"Cloud Atlas" has America's top critics united on one thing — the sprawling adaptation of David Mitchell's novel is one ambitious ride.
Apart from that, reviewers are sharply divided over whether the $100 million film is a philosophical wonder that neatly hops from past to present to future while masterfully demonstrating the interconnectedness of human experience or a lumpy and pretentious bore (or all of the above).
With a trio of directors that includes the Wachowski siblings ("The Matrix") and Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving appearing briefly in drag, "Cloud Atlas" arrives in theaters Friday as one of the year's most hotly anticipated films. It's also likely to be one of the most divisive, if the initial reviews are any guide.
Also read: Tom Hanks Explains What 'Cloud Atlas' Is About (Video)
In TheWrap, Alonso Duralde praised the film for demanding much of its audience. It never spells out its mysteries, Duralde marveled, but ultimately he found it to be emotionally inert.
"It’s the kind of challenge that spawns rabid admirers and equally fervent detractors, although I must say I find myself somewhere in the middle," he writes.
"It’s a puzzle I enjoyed piecing together, but when each tale came to a close and built up to what was intended to be a soaring, emotional climax, I felt no flutter in the chest or tingle up my spine. I absolutely admire this adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel as an impressive object, but it never moved me."
If Duralde found himself stuck in a no-man's land between love it or hate it, The New York Observer's Rex Reed had no trouble finding his bearings. Move this to the top of your "must miss" list, Reed advised in a review that pulsated with venom.
"Almost three hours long, a lugubrious sludge of mud soup called Cloud Atlas deserves a limp nod for pure guts, I suppose, but what I’d really like to do is burn it," Reed writes.
He adds: " …the movie is a trash heap of rubber noses and implausible high school accents that give new meaning to the word 'pretentious.'"
Also not a fan was Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, although his takedown was decidedly more nuanced than Reed's body blow. In particular, he praised the filmmakers for taking on such challenging material, though he argued the finished product is bogged down under the weight of its grand themes.
"Finally, what sinks 'Cloud Atlas' is not the largeness of its ambitions but the lack of skill it displays in terms of writing, directing and acting," Turan writes. "Earthbound when it wants to be soaring, striving for a kind of profundity that is out of its grasp, this is simply not the film everyone hoped it would be."
At The New York Times, A.O. Scott was similarly torn. He admired the scope and spectacle of the film, while also finding it to be overly didactic. If pressed, count his review a qualified endorsement.
"Together the filmmakers try so hard to give you everything — the secrets of the universe and the human heart; action, laughs and romance; tragedy and mystery — that you may wind up feeling both grateful and disappointed," Scott writes.
It was Roger Ebert, the critical bastion at the Chicago Sun-Times, who delivered the most full-throated rave for "Cloud Atlas," saying that the mind-bending epic demands and deserves repeat viewings. In a review that interspersed appraisal with philosophy, he even used the film as a launching point to grapple with some of life's enigmas.
"I was never, ever bored by 'Cloud Atlas," Ebert writes. "On my second viewing, I gave up any attempt to work out the logical connections between the segments, stories and characters. What was important was that I set my mind free to play. Clouds do not really look like camels or sailing ships or castles in the sky. They are simply a natural process at work. So too, perhaps, are our lives."
Sounds cool, but are there Cliffs Notes?