Director: Tom Twyker and Lana and Andy Wachowski
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Time Warner Inc
Something you can at least say about Cloud Atlas, the nearly three-hour movie version of David Mitchell’s dense, twisty-turny 2004 best seller: you haven’t seen anything else like it at the movies this year.
Adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Matrix trilogy makers Lana and Andy Wachowski, the movie tosses into a virtual Vitamix the novel’s six separate chronologically told tales and spits them out in one headlong, gaga, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink rush of images, tones and degrees of interest. The end result is, from moment to moment, bold, baffling, brilliant, messed up, painfully broad and emotionally icy. You can’t tell the players, or the stories, without a scorecard.
One section of the saga is set in 1850 aboard a ship in the South Pacific, with Jim Sturgess playing a wealthy young lawyer saved by a self-freed slave (David Gyasi) from poisoning by a twisted doctor (Tom Hanks). Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw plays a talented 1930s-era musician—in love with a handsome, upper-class fellow Brit (James D’Arcy)—who assists an egomaniacal, aging composer (Jim Broadbent) who tries to steal credit for Whishaw’s haunting Cloud Atlas Sextet. Halle Berry is a crusading 1970s-era journalist in mortal danger from nasty nuke industrialist Hugh Grant who learns that scientists (Hanks and D’Arcy again) have slipped Berry incriminating top-secret documents.
In contemporary London, wealthy Hugh Grant (back again) throws his publisher brother (Broadbent again) into a no-escape home for the elderly and, in futuristic Neo-Seoul, Korea, a replicant (Doona Bae) and her leader-of-the-resistance lover (Sturgess) become revolutionary touchstones to an oppressed population of worker-slaves. And, just to round things out, we get Tom Hanks yet again in bookend segments as a distant-future shepherd being aided by Halle Berry, a wise visitor from an elite, struggling civilization.
Philosophical dialogues ensue about our mutual interconnectedness, how our good and evil acts ripple infinitely into the future and how everyone on earth is deserving of respect. Good, noble stuff, really. But what might have been profound, genuinely moving, even transformational gets botched by pretense and silliness. When some of the characters talk it’s as if someone cribbed notes from a seminar pamphlet on metaphysics without actually bothering to attend the seminar itself.
The stars play multiple roles while trying out different accents and struggling to remain vertical under tons of wigs and latex. Some of them appear to be having a high old time—enjoyable, scenery-chewing Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving, among them. Others, like Susan Sarandon, appear stranded. With good reason. Whishaw, though, is excellent throughout what is probably the best-made segment of the entire movie. Despite Cloud Atlas being admirably adventurous, daring and truly ambitious, the movie doesn’t sell us on its own meaningfulness and complexity. Instead, its messages feel like they’re straight out of Cloud Cuckoo Land.