The creators of the Matrix trilogy and the director of Run Lola Run deliver chronologically scrambled historical epic/science fiction drama that spans centuries, features heavily made-up movie stars in multiple roles, lasts for nearly three hours and has a box office-unfriendly R rating. A dizzyingly ambitious art film that manages to be both structurally convoluted and emotionally simplistic, Cloud Atlas proves as compelling for its failed choices as for its stylistic bravado.
The adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel recounts six wildly disparate stories:
A naïve young businessman (Jim Sturgess) befriends a tropical slave (David Gyasi) over a 1850s sea voyage.
Penniless, gay musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) serves as an assistant to a genius composer (Jim Broadbent) in England of 1931.
Journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) investigates a sinister cover-up involving a San Francisco nuclear power plant in 1975.
In the present day, tweedy English publisher Henry Cavendish (Broadbent) gets drawn into dilemmas involving an unsavory author (Tom Hanks) and a sinister nursing home.
A “fabricant,” or cloned servant (Doona Bae), at a fast food chain becomes embroiled in a revolution in 21st century “New Seoul.”
Finally, a humble shepherd (Hanks) helps a representative of a higher-tech culture (Berry) to find a forgotten artifact long after the fall of civilization.
The Wachowskis direct the segments in the 19th century and the far future, while Tykwer helms the other three. Cloud Atlas cuts back and forth between the different storylines, juxtaposing storylines that should be jarringly dissimilar. While each story dabbles in familiar genres, from 1970s conspiracy thriller to contemporary English comedy to post-apocalyptic sci-fi, their actual plots prove fresh and idiosyncratic. You don’t know where Cloud Atlas will lead you.
Each narrative makes an impact on the one that follows: Frobisher reads the diary of the sea journey; Louisa pores over Frobisher’s correspondence with his lover (James D’Arcy), and so on. At one point Doona Bae’s fabricant sees a film version of Cavendish’s story, with Hanks briefly playing a Hollywoodized version of Broadbent. By casting the actors in multiple roles, the film floats themes of reincarnation and eternal recurrence.
Given that Lana Wachowski has recently transitioned from “Larry,” it makes sense that the filmmakers would be interested in the ways that souls transcend physical bodies. But it’s difficult to connect the characters in different time-lines. Is the gentle Hanks of 1975 and the distant future really the same person as the nasty personalities he plays in the 19th and 21st centuries?
The filmmakers’ daring leads to decisions that blow up literally in the cast’s faces. Early on, Hanks and Susan Sarandon wear arresting, borderline freakish prosthetic noses for a Victorian-era dinner party. Perhaps the filmmakers used these to send a signal to the audience: “Look, there’s going to be all kinds of crazy make-up in this film, so let go of your expectations and just go with it.” Unfortunately, Cloud Atlas makes some genuinely eccentric decisions, making over the actors in different genders and races. Hugo Weaving plays oppressive figures in each timeline, including a woman, a 22nd-century Korean and a demon-figure who may be a hallucination. The quality of the make-up can range from “seamless” to “resembling rubber Halloween mask.”
A more coherent through-line emerges of individuals fighting for liberty in the face of an oppressive system, from 19th century slavery to modern-day corporate criminals to New Seoul’s Orwellian police state. If the notions of love conquering time tend to be muddled, the struggles for freedom prove genuinely exciting, from shoot-outs on the streets of San Francisco to extravagant special effects battles. It’s like the progress of individual liberty takes at least one step back for every two steps forward.
Given the Wachowski’s technical innovations with Matrix movies, it’s not surprising that the New Seoul segment proves the most visually arresting and dramatically satisfying. The Frobisher section, however, proves the film’s most emotionally satisfying, with Wishaw playing a cavalier young man facing impossible obstacles to both romantic and creative fulfillment. Wishaw and D’Arcy give affecting performances, while many of the other actors seem game but over their heads.
Hanks may be one of Hollywood’s most likeable actors, but he’s not the kind of chameleon the film needs. As post-apocalyptic Zachry, he and the rest of his tribe speak a nearly impenetrable patois reminiscent of the Gullah language. With no subtitles, it’s easier to follow the meaning through tone of voice and body language. And while the Cavendish segment gets points for including comedy as a change of pace amid the melodrama, the jokes and overacting grate until an escape attempt plot kicks in.
Cloud Atlas will leave some audiences baffled, but despite its nearly three hour running time, they won’t be bored, and will have plenty to dissect and argue about in the lobby afterward. If anything, Cloud Atlas resembles a high-tech attempt to replicate D.W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance, another three-hour epic with stories from four drastically different historical periods yet shared social themes. Maybe we need only one of these films every 96 years.
Cloud Atlas. 3 stars. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 26. At area theaters.
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