There’s no middle ground with a film like “Cloud Atlas.” You’ll either greatly admire the ambitious undertaking to bring David Mitchell’s revered 2004 novel to the big screen or be turned off by the scene-shifting and confusing script within the first 20-minutes. I’m definitely in the latter of this endlessly frustrating effort from filmmakers trying too hard to make you see their vision as a masterpiece instead of simply making one.
Tom Tykwer joins forces with Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”) on this massive century-spanning tale exploring reincarnation and how actions affect past, present and future. It’s a weighty subject and the directing/screenwriting trio offer a wealth of material for anyone willing to invest in multiple viewings to get all of its complexities.
The common thread is the girls (and boys) with the comet tattoo birthmark. In one lifetime, they may be a wealthy musician while the next, they’re bumming money from everyone they encounter. For others, we’re shown how their core nature is consistent as in the fascinating case of a slave owner (Hugh Grant) whose journey takes him through lives as a shady businessman, a slovenly restaurant owner to a murderous, cannibalistic warrior who is the physical representation of his predecessors.
In one time frame, Halle Berry (“Catwoman”) may be an expose chasing journalist, a trophy wife in another or a male surgeon. Gender-switching is a common theme throughout to show there’s no telling how a person will be reincarnated in their next life, but lousy makeup ruins the impact and becomes an unintended running joke. The constant switching from different time periods also helps make the film hard to follow.
With a three-hour epic, it’s not all bad. The futuristic 2144 NeoSoul segment featuring a skilled freedom fighter Ha-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess, “21”) saving a clone, Sonmi-451 (Doom Bae), is the Wachowkis at their “Matrix-y” best and would have made for a thrilling standalone film. They handle comedy surprisingly well in Timothy Cavendish’s (Jim Broadbent) funny subplot about the wacky ordeal of a literary agent, but in other segments they fail at truly providing a connection to the characters.
Of the performers, Tom Hanks (“The Terminal”) is most easily able to overcome the shoddy makeup to get you invested in his six, very different characters even in the silly 2321 post apocalyptic segment where Hanks’ Zachry is part of a tribe that looks like refugees from “Battlefield Earth” and speak in a dialect that Jar-Jar Binks would find childish. Broadbent will be an audience favorite and Sturgess is the most likely to come out the biggest star.
From a visual standpoint, the film is gorgeous. Frank Griebe and John Toll’s cinematography provides an easy guide for the story’s current location with bright, booming colors for the 1849 South Pacific tale, shifting to an over saturated faded 1973 San Francisco to the glitzy Neo Soul.
For all its grandeur, the filmmakers stumble getting to the level to make the film a true epic. The characters are unremarkable and I wanted some significance to them worthy of the time spent with them. The film’s crushing length of 172 minutes suggests the filmmakers were so in love with the material they couldn’t determine what was essential for the story and what could be spared for the special edition. There’s a sense that you should be enjoying it, but the film is too much of a chore to appreciate. “Cloud Atlas” is an overwhelming experience, but for all the wrong reasons.
Rating: 4 out of 10