Star-studded ‘Cloud Atlas’ confuses impressively
Updated: October 26, 2012 7:24AM
Epic in scope yet superficial in emotional impact, gorgeous to behold and extremely well-acted yet oddly uninvolving, full of grand philosophical themes yet frequently incoherent, “Cloud Atlas” may be the most impressively frustrating film you see this year.
Still, if you’re a fan of “Matrix” creators the Wachowski brothers — make that brother and sister after Larry’s transgender transformation into Lana — or Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”) or wildly ambitious creative efforts in general, this time-twisting saga is well worth a look. Unless you’re familiar with David Mitchell’s award-winning 2004 novel, though, be prepared to leave the theater with more questions than you had coming in.
Apparently, Mitchell’s novel tells six loosely connected stories spanning 500 years, each told in a different literary style and genre. A young lawyer working for a slave trader in 1859 becomes involved with a runaway slave. A young gay composer in the 1930s becomes the secretary for a famous, elderly and corrupt composer, while working on his own first symphony. A female reporter in 1970s California risks her life to expose a dangerous corporate plot at a nuclear power plant. A British publisher in present day attempts to escape from an oppressive retirement home where he has been tricked into residence. In 22nd-century Neo Seoul, a revolutionary commander rescues a genetically engineered waitress/slave, believing she will become important for his cause. In the post-apocalyptic 24th century, a tribesman reluctantly helps one of the remaining members of the technologically-advanced pre-apocalyptic civilization to contact others now living on distant planets.
All of the stories are told in a straightforward start-to-finish fashion almost all the way through — with a final section concluding each in ways that demonstrate how they relate to each other.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer, who split up to direct stories in each era, wanted to be as faithful as possible to the novel — hence the three-hour running time. Hence, also, the decision to tell all six simultaneously, with the big-name cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving playing a variety of major and minor characters, sometimes unrecognizably thanks to extreme makeup effects.
That’s a fascinating, yet occasionally baffling, device. One that only begins to make sense gradually, as the various narrative strands reveal themselves and common philosophical themes begin to emerge: that we are all interconnected, that love is the only thing that matters and that the world “spins from the same unseen forces that spin our hearts.” But, it takes a long, long time for those messages to get across. Even for the vague reincarnation theme to become an organizing principal, with nothing more than a recurring comet birthmark suggesting the development of one soul across centuries.
It helps that each of the stories look great, especially the “Blade Runner”-like Neo Soul revolutionary drama, which includes some truly dazzling action sequences. And that many of the performances are compelling, especially Ben Whishaw as the young composer and Korean actress Doona Bae as the slave-turned-revolutionary-prophet. Unfortunately, with all the jumping back and forth between stories and time zones, it’s hard for emotional involvement in any of the stories to take hold — and for the half-a-millennium-in-the-making finale to deliver the sort of awe about the human condition it was clearly meant to inspire.
Watching Tom Hanks return again to the old, scarred man he plays in the opening scene, telling a story by a campfire that’s meant to conclude all the previous stories, you’re more likely to be counting on your fingers, thinking: “Wait, who was he again, how did he get here and what is he mumbling about?”