David Mitchell's time-shifting novel Cloud Atlas was considered impossible to film. And despite best efforts by the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), they proved this to be true.
Their labor of dedication is dense, at times illogical and incomprehensible, and comes dangerously close to spiraling out of control with a bouncing-ball narrative as viewers simply try to keep up with the basics: who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Cloud Atlas is a tapestry of six self-contained stories linked by fate, logic, and love in the 1850s, 1930s, 1970s, present time, near future, and a distant post-apocalyptic future.
There's so much going on with important and even incidental characters and plots, it's difficult to compress this information into one film, much less a single explanatory paragraph.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism for audiences, the Wachowskis and Tykwer cast recognizable actors including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant to reincarnate as the most important characters in the film's time line. The familiar-face continuity is clever and perhaps necessary from a marketing point of view, but utterly distracting as a spectator given the film's propensity to leap back and forth through the centuries.
Among the characters Hanks plays are a greedy, murderous doctor in the 1850s; a nondescript hotel manager in the 1930s; a whistle-blowing nuclear scientist in the 1970s; a thuggish British man and would-be author in present times; and a tribesman centuries from now in a post-apocalyptic world where pidgin English is the new language. (The filmmakers elected to keep this mish-mash of recognizable words, Yoda speak, and what eerily resembles Pig Latin no doubt in deference to the novel, but the often-unintelligible dialogue only showcases that what the characters are saying isn't so important as what they are doing.)
Without a proper bonding time with any of Hanks' characters, however, it's difficult to accept the likable Oscar-winning actor as anything other than a likable Oscar-winning actor, or Berry for that matter, or Grant, or Susan Sarandon. A notable exception would be brilliant British character actor Jim Broadbent, who doesn't have the spotlight of a major Hollywood star calling attention to his every scene in the film. In fact, it's the little-known actors who fare best in the film precisely for that reason.
Yet no one on screen is served well by what is sure to be the biggest denominator of derision for Cloud Atlas: the subpar makeup of laughable faux noses and clownish wigs. These makeup gaffes, rather than disguising the famous, only call more attention to the fact these are actors sometimes made up to be different genders and races.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer — all of whom share the screenwriting and directing credits — connect enough dots between these decades and centuries for a thematic purpose, but their stretched-thin common thread doesn't amount to much more than an ambitious grasp at linking human destiny and the roles individuals play in fulfilling it.
Yet there are moments when the movie connects in astonishing ways and transcends standard filmmaking with vision and verve and sheer force of will, if only by the sheer audacity to attempt something so grandly massive.
Alas, these on-screen victories appear more accidental than editing room triumph, given the overall standard of the work.
In many respects, Cloud Atlas is akin to Terrence Malick's meandering meditation on the evolution of compassion and survival in last year's Tree of Life, a film with molasses for a plot and the inspiring beauty of a Pacific island sunset.
Tree of Life divided critics and likely Cloud Atlas will do the same. But for those who willingly sat through the lengthy Malick opus, the payoff was intense reflection and, perhaps, support for a film that will likely age well. Cloud Atlas, however, is most likely to suffer by its own technological hand, as today's CGI effects become dated relics, and with a finale that doesn't so much reward audiences as it does offer them relief that their trial of patience is over.
Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, based on the David Mitchell novel. A Warner Brothers release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity, and some drug use. Running time: 172 minutes.
Critic's Rating: **
Cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Jim Sturgess.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.