October 25, 2012
A big-budget film's marketing mission is simple: Eliminate the idea of an unsuspecting audience. Did people know what they were getting when they got "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"? Yes. They got what they were shown in the 30-second ads, over and over and over.
Now and then, though, a movie comes along defying shorthand description. Adapted from David Mitchell's spinning top of a novel, "Cloud Atlas" exists to vex, intrigue and discombobulate unsuspecting audiences six ways to Sunday.
It tackles nothing less than the oppressors and the oppressed throughout centuries of humanity; the reverberations of karmic payback across the oceans; the dangers of "a purely predatory world" (Mitchell's phrase) intent on consuming itself and its residents; and the value of a large supply of fake noses, sported in this nutty farrago of a picture by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and their fellow customers at The Nose Store. "Cloud Atlas" has the air of a historical masquerade, both playful and serious.
Six storylines provide the webbing. Adapters and directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski crosscut and juggle the stories more aggressively than Mitchell did on the page. Chronologically it begins in 1849 on a Pacific Ocean voyage, and ends in the 24th century, after a series of selfish acts have caught up with our planet. In later sequences, Hanks plays a lonely goat herder, who speaks in a throwback Uncle Remus argot reflecting the cyclical nature of all things under the sun. In the book, old Zachry observes: "Most yarnin's got a bit o' true, some yarnin's got some true, an' a few yarnin's got a lot o' true." The funny thing about the film version of "Cloud Atlas" is that Hanks' musings about yarnin's and "the true-true" is correct: Crisscrossing time zones and centuries for nearly three hours, the results are a little true here, a little more there, patently ridiculous in some aspects and quite beautiful in others.
The chief actors play five or six roles apiece. In 1849, a young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) befriends an escaped slave (David Gyasi) while coping with a strange illness with the help of a doctor (Hanks) named Goose. In 1936, a promising young composer (Ben Whishaw) falls in love with the sad, elegant Sixsmith (James D'Arcy) but hitches his wagon to an aging classical composer (Broadbent) working on his "Cloud Atlas" sextet.
Zwooop forward to the 1970s in San Francisco. Sixsmith, decades older, holds the key to a massive conspiracy involving Big Oil, a controversial nuclear power plant project, and the health and safety of an investigative reporter (Berry). In the present day, Broadbent returns as a book publisher confined, against his will, in an English countryside home for the decrepit and abandoned. Weaving, in drag, plays the worst of the overseers there, a woman no different in spirit than the ruddy slaveholders in the 19th-century sequences. I frankly don't know if the modern-day segment, far more antic and comic than the others, connects in a direct way to the other five stories.
Whatever: Who says it has to? The most satisfying and kinetic of the tales takes us to "Neo Seoul," a "Blade Runner"-y and "Metropolis"-based future where a "fabricant" (Doona Bae), accused of fomenting revolution against the "consumers" who control the society, is interviewed by an archivist (D'Arcy). From there it's a short hop to 2321, a century after "the fall," when what's left of the world has become both impossibly advanced yet crudely primitive. Grim, but hopeful. The stories don't proceed in order of chronology; rather, they're scrambled and intertwined. Key characters share a shooting-star birthmark. "Eternal recurrence" is the theme; the actors and their various noses provide the variations.
I've seen "Cloud Atlas" twice, not because I love it, but because I wanted to figure out why I didn't. On the page, Mitchell allows each time frame to develop a rhythm and a language and some momentum before zinging over to another track. On screen, the Wachowskis (who filmed the two futuristic storylines and the 1849 adventure) and Tykwer (who handled the 1936, 1973 and 2012 bits) never stick with any one universe for long. For dramatic and polyphonic effect, we're perpetually yanked out of a moment of crisis or a chase to catch up with the other narratives. The broader comedy falls flat. The "Neo Seoul" fable of revolution is strong and evocative enough to stand alone.
The actors go at it with gusto. Certain supporting players — Grant is very good in a variety of scummy cameos — have a better time of it than others. Hanks, it must be said, looks as if he wants out of the 2321 plot line. There's not much interest in stylistic consistency in "Cloud Atlas," not with such far-flung settings and a class-A hambone such as Broadbent mugging to beat the band while sharing scenes with Whishaw, who does as little as possible above the neck.
Three options. Either you wallow in "Cloud Atlas" and swim in its ocean, or you wait patiently for the connections between the centuries to be established. Or you wait impatiently for the same. I experienced all three. The movie doesn't really work, but it's fascinating in the ways it doesn't. Then again, I enjoyed the spacey insanity of the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer," which they didn't even like in Asia.
'Cloud Atlas' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)
Running time: 2:44
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