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
Now and then, though, a movie comes along defying shorthand description. Adapted from David Mitchell's spinning top of a novel,
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
Six storylines provide the webbing. Adapters and directors
The chief actors play five or six roles apiece. In 1849, a young lawyer (
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
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.