“Cloud Atlas” is a big, bold novel by David Mitchell that tells six different stories in six distinct styles set in six different time frames with each story loosely connected to the others.
I enjoyed the book for its innovative structure, overarching musings on human nature, and occasional, bright little moments of genius. There were stretches though that never really connected and the whole thing never fully lived up to its tremendous promise.
Relax, I haven’t tricked you into reading a book review; however, I do have to report that after watching the film version of “Cloud Atlas” I found myself holding the almost the exact same mixed-bag of emotions I felt after finishing the novel.
I love the ambition of this film. Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) divvied up the six stories between them and used the same actors to fill out the roles in each to hammer home the novel’s reincarnation themes. It’s like watching an acting troupe plow through an entire season’s worth of summer stock in a little less than three hours.
Above-the-title credits go to Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, but it’s also really fun to see the likes of Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, Hugh Grant, and Susan Sarandon popping up again and again.
Also, instead of adopting the novel’s semi-linear style, all six stories get chopped up and mixed together. Mad props to editor Alexander Berner for being able to construct even the loosest semblance of a narrative out of this mighty jumble.
The movie contains the strong suggestion that souls are genderless and switch from male to female throughout the centuries. This is especially interesting when you consider that not too long ago Lana Wachowski used to be Larry Wachowski, thus becoming history’s most prominent transgender director.
Each story deals with a character struggling against some form of oppression, be it grand and widespread or slight and personal.
In the 1800s, a man finds himself on an ocean voyage quartered with a treacherous doctor. In the 1930s, a young composer faces off with his mentor over the creation of a masterwork. In the 1970s, a reporter stumbles onto a deadly conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. In the present day, a book publisher on the run from debtors finds himself trapped in a nursing home against his will. One hundred years in the future a clone bred for servitude blossoms intellectually and becomes the spark of a revolution. And finally, in the distant future after the fall of civilization, a tribesman befriends a member of an advanced race searching for humanity’s last, best chance of survival.
Visually this is a stunning movie, which you would expect considering the directors’ track record. From the topmast of a mighty sailing vessel to the soaring heights of a lazergun battle atop futuristic skyscrapers, there is never a lack of things to look at in “Cloud Atlas.”
Admittedly this is a lot to keep track of, and for all the ambition on display and emotional crescendos swirling about, we never get a satisfying payoff. Instead of enhancing each other, the different stories at times undercut the others, especially as the tones jarringly switch from thrilling to comedic to grim to romantic and back again.
I also have a beef with the wildly inconsistent makeup used to transform the actors from story to story. In some cases, it was so well done it was impossible to recognize the actor until he or she was revealed in the credits. In others, the prosthetics were so poorly applied it looked like the actor was working under a hastily purchased rubber mask. Even worse was the uncomfortably clumsy racial transformation of Anglo actors into Asians.
Few things are more distracting than bad makeup, especially against the backdrop of dazzling special effects. We can generate entire cities out of thin air; can we not come up with a nose that looks like it would actually occur in nature?
Ultimately the best I can say about “Cloud Atlas” is that it is a beautiful mess. This movie does have its rewarding moments, but only for the most patient moviegoer. But even with all its shortcomings, this was a film that stuck with me.
There are flashes of brilliance here and I will always applaud a film that reaches for the stars but never quite makes it over yet another formulaic retread.
“Cloud Atlas” is rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity, and some drug use.