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Cloud Atlas (2012)

October 28, 2012

 

written by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

produced by: Grant Hill, Stefan Arnt, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski & Tom Tykwer

directed by: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

rating: r (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)

runtime: 172 min.

U.S. release date: October 26, 2012

 

A week after my initial viewing of this passionate and ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s dense novel, I’m still quite impressed with what I saw – even though I didn’t like it all. With six storylines, requiring three Oscar-winning actors to play six different roles in six different timelines and four other actors following suit as well as supporting actors playing other multiple characters, this is undoubtedly the most ambitious film I’m likely to see this year. The movie also crosses genres in its almost three-hour length, from the 1800s to the year 2144 and beyond, so there may be something for everyone here. Maybe.

“Cloud Atlas” is a cloudy mess. I was utterly confused at times, while simultaneously impressed by the sheer scope of the film. I was mesmerized and frustrated at the same time. It happens sometimes.

Trying to describe the movie to others has proved to be a challenge, but it’s given me an even greater respect for the intensive labor that went into making it. So far, I’ve been describing it like this: “Cloud Atlas” is like sitting down on a couch with a friend to watch television and the two of you can’t figure out what to watch. Your friend has the remote control and flips through six different channels every two to five minutes for almost three hours. You can sit back and try to make sense of it all or give up and take in the fine cinematography and visual effects along, but also suffer some seriously bad old age make-up.

 

This is undeniably a passion project from the filmmakers who brought us “The Matrix” and “Run Lola Run”, two other ground-breaking and original films. That’s undeniable. One thing is certain, with all these story lines and characters, you definitely won’t feel the lengthy runtime. I’m on the fence though whether or not this is a good or bad movie for those with short attention spans.

The movie is bookended by a story that takes place in a time listed as “106 Years After The Fall”, involving an old villager (Tom Hanks, in one of many bad make-up jobs) who is recollecting his life story in a mostly unintelligible language. Then, it is 1850 and we are traveling aboard a vessel with an American named Adam (Jim Sturgess) in the South Seas. He has suspiciously fallen ill and is being looked after by a doctor (a creepy Hanks) and also encounters an African sailor (David Gyasi), a man whose path may be destined to cross with Adam’s. In 1931 Belgium, we meet a young composer named Robert (Ben Wishaw, “I’m Not There”) who is secretly in love with Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and working for a fussy yet renowned and accomplished composer (Jim Broadbent). Under pressure, Robert focuses on completing his opus he calls “Cloud Atlas”, a piece of work that’s in danger of being stolen by his employer.

 

 

Fast-forward to 1975, where we meet Luisa (Halle Berry) an investigative reporter who, with the help of a mysterious guy named Joe (Keith David) may be uncovering a scandal at a nuclear power plant run by Hooks (Hugh Grant) where the seemingly familiar Dr. Sachs (Hanks) works, while evading a dogged assassin (Hugo Weaving in Agent Smith mode) in San Francisco. In 2012 London, we meet Timothy Cavendish (a delightful Broadbent), a book publisher who’s wanted by gangsters after his cockney client (Hanks) gets in trouble. Cavendish seeks help from his brother Denholme (Grant, in rubbery old man make-up), who betrays him by committing him to a nursing home, where he is left to deal with a mean nurse (Weaving, in drag) while planning his escape and maybe reconnecting with his lost love, Ursula (Susan Sarandon).

 

 

We travel to 2144, where we meet a fabricant named Sonmi-351 (an emotive Doona Bae, “The Host”) in Neo Seoul, Korea. She works in a restaurant with similar-looking clones, but ignites a revolution when a rebel named Chang (Sturgess, in bad Asian make-up) liberates her, opening her eyes to the world outside the one she was programmed for.

Returning to the time “After The Fall”, we follow Zachary (Hanks) a villager on a post-apocalyptic planet, who agrees to guide a other-worldly woman (Berry) to the top of a mysterious mountain, while evading a dangerous savage (an unrecognizable Grant) and struggling with an evil leprechaun (Weaving) that only he can see. (If only their language didn’t remind me of Jodie Foster’s indecipherable dialect in “Nell”).

Did you get all that? I don’t even know if I did. All of these story lines somehow mimic or influence each other. It would probably take someone who’s read the book or who’s seen this movie more than twice to fully comprehend it all. In the spirit of the movie’s poster which reads “Everything is Connected”, at least one character in each of these timelines has a comet birthmark in common. That’s one obvious connection, but there are certainly others to be made, for another time perhaps.

 

 

While this is a picture that eventually becomes quite an immersive one (the shuffling transitions takes some getting used to), there are aspects that yanked me out of my viewing enjoyment over and over. Like last year’s “J. Edgar”, the distractingly bad make-up work throughout “Cloud Atlas” really made it hard to stay connected with everything (let alone keep a straight face). It’s just too much to ask to see Halle Berry in white face (she kind of resembles Madonna), Tom Hanks in orange face, Keith David as an Asian warrior and all the other actors who show up in multiple roles. Each time an actor shows up in another timeline, playing another character, my attention was unfortunately on that actor, not the character.

Maybe if some of these actors weren’t so recognizable, it would be easier to swallow them reappearing here and there. I know I’m not the only one who felt this way, as there were a number of sighs and chuckles in the theater I was at. Granted, there is purposeful humor here, but many of my laughs came from the characters that elicited  eye rolls.

Regardless, Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made an enormous, uncompromising film. It may be riddled with cliché lines amid other flaws, but its repeated themes of kindness, courage and sacrifice (to name a few) are captivating, as is the flow of coherent action and the sometimes poignant drama on display.

Visually stimulating, violent and confounding, “Cloud Atlas” should be experienced. I would never dissuade anyone interested in seeing “Cloud Atlas” from watching it, but I would probably provide some bullet points for those with only a slight curiosity.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

 

 

 

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