Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski
Written by: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski (screenplay), David Mitchell (novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have come unstuck in time. Over the course of Cloud Atlas’ wildly ambitious 172 minutes, the two mainstream Hollywood actors and a plethora of others- Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant- appear as wildly different characters in just as wildly different time periods, from California in 1973 to post-apocalyptic Hawaii hundreds of years from now.
The six varying and intersecting narrative threads in Cloud Atlas are stunningly shot and at times narratively captivating. As adapted by Andy and Lana Wachowki and Tom Tykwer (who all co-wrote and directed), it amounts to a beautiful mess. There are too many narrative threads and characters to begin with, and adding poor execution and editing to that just makes it worse.
It’s too bad, because the filmmakers’ hearts are all in the right place and the sprawling scope of the themes and their ripple effect across time had the potential to be thrilling. There are several instances where narration from one time period will coincide with a bombardment of images from other time periods. If they’re edited well, like in an instance where Susan Sarandon first brings up the key line, “Our lives are not our own,” in a monologue, it can be thrilling.
Most of the time it isn’t, though, because right as a filmmaking rhythm starts working up in one segment the film will sporadically cut to another and the momentum is halted and begins anew. Interweaving a nursing home breakout scheme in contemporary London with the imprisonment of an escaped Korean slave in 2144 feels forced in the film version, even if it did work in David Mitchell’s book. Add that some of the prosthetics and makeup are cheesy and distracting, and the movie can unintentionally draw laughs.
Usually makeup is one of the least controversial things about a movie, but emerging criticism from Asian-American groups about the use of white actors to portray Asians in the futuristic Korean segment is hampering the movie even further. It is quite distracting, especially seeing Hugo Weaving’s almost comical presence as a villainous government official. However, the core theme of experiencing life as an other means it was probably somewhat well-intentioned and not mean-spirited a la Frankenweenie.
Cloud Atlas is a beautiful movie to look at, despite the gaping flaws in its execution. The performers are game for anything, and it’s nice to see Hanks and Berry attempt something risky even if they sometimes fall flat on their faces (no thanks to the Irish accent, Tom). There are emotional moments and beautifully nuanced relationships, especially concerning the young gay composer (Ben Whishaw) of the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” music theme that connects almost all the characters.
Whishaw also starred in a much better mind and time-bender, the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, where six actors of various races and genders portrayed a portion of the legendary songwriter’s career in different time periods. Cloud Atlas’ six narratives lack the consistency of vision and editing style that that film so brilliantly yielded. It’s much more difficult to find parallels in this movie’s narratives but more importantly, it isn’t rewarding in the slightest.