Lives entwine across the ages in dense, yet visionary ‘Cloud Atlas’
Who will win the Best Makeup award at next year’s Oscar festivities? You can bet on the talented team from Cloud Atlas, the ambitious, visionary saga of love, loss, greed, slavery, and redemption through the ages, co-written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer.
Not only does this intrepid crew remake recognizeable actors into various characters in various timelines in the film’s six interconnected stories, it often radically alters an actors’ age, ethnicity and gender into the bargain.
The ease with which Asian and Caucasian, male and female, black and white switch roles throughout the film puts Cloud Atlas at risk of becoming a stunt movie, an elaborate game of spot-the-actor. OMG—it’s Tom Hanks as that foul-mouthed skinhead British author. There’s Halle Berry as a futuristic (male) lab tech with a gearshift for an eye. And isn’t that Hugh Grant in tribal war paint? But the movie is rich (some might say dense) enough in ideas, plot, characters, and themes to keep us engaged. Having the same actors play diverse roles across five centuries of civilization also enhances the central motif of humanity facing the same moral, romantic and political issues in every era, where, as one chartacter says, “the smallest crime or kindness” can have unknowable repercussions throughout the ages.
Adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, the film presents six interwoven stories in different styles. (The Wachowski siblings and Tykwer directed three segments each.) In 1849, the bond between a young English clerk (Jim Sturgess) on a voyage to the South Seas, and a runaway slave (David Gyasi), alters both their lives and the abolitionist cause. A cheeky, ambitious young British composer (a terrific Ben Whishaw), who ditches university life in 1936 to worm his way into the household of a crotchety old maestro (Jim Broadbent), is driven to desperate measures to protect the integrity of his work and the reputation of his male lover (James D’Arcy).
A journalist (Berry) in 1973 San Francisco finds herself in the middle of a neo-noir detective thriller while investigating Big Oil skullduggery in the building of a nuclear energy plant. The tone shifts to comedy in 2012, when a bankrupt publisher (Broadbent, again) plots to escape from the old folks home where his vengeful brother (Grant) has incarcerated him. In “Neo Seoul,” 2144 (after rising oceans have engulfed old Seoul), a cloned “fabricant” (Doona Bae) of the slave class bred to serve the consumer class in underground pleasure bars, gets radicalized by a dashing rebel (Sturgess, again).
The final story is set “160 years after The Fall,” in a post-apocalyptic world that has reverted to tribalism on the ground after the ruling, tech class (“Prescients”) have whirled off in their space ships. Hanks gets his biggest role in this segment (after such able supporting roles in others as a greedy, homicidal ship’s doc, and a corporate whistleblower). As wary goatherd, Zachry, he struggles to overcome fear and suspicion when a sleek Prescient (Berry) falls out of the sky. Most of their invented, post-English language is annoyingly impossible to understand (it was probably easier to get the gist reading it on the page). Still, the appearance of a grinning, green-skinned devil (Hugo Weaving), like a voodoo jumby in top hat and tattered finery, egging on all of Zachry’s worst instincts, is a great device.
Transitions back and forth between these stories are ingenious. And set pieces can be amazing, from a yard’s-eye-view of reefing a topsail at sea, to the spectacular plunge of a car off a bridge into the bay below from the viewpoint of the driver inside. Thematically, it’s best not to take things too literally; characters played by the same actor—or bearing the same birthmark—aren’t necessarily reincarnated versions of each other, but it would take multiple viewings to be sure.
True, vehicle chases and shootouts get a bit repetitive (especially when none of the bad guys can hit anything). And while the actors are all game, and hugely entertaining, genuine emotional resonance sometimes gets lost in all the busy flash and dazzle. Still, for all its excesses, Cloud Atlas offers an often bewitching look at humankind’s search for love, freedom, wisdom, and justice, and the connecting threads that bind us all in this eternal quest.
★★★ (Out of four)
With Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent.
Written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. A Warner Bros release. Rated R. 172 minutes.