Cloud Atlas is about a closeted musician (Ben Whishaw) who collaborates with a celebrated composer (Jim Broadbent) on a legendary piece called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” It’s also about a Karen Silkwood-like investigation, in which the findings of a resourceful young woman (Halle Berry) threaten to expose a sleazy corporate fat cat (Hugh Grant). It also portrays a publisher (Jim Broadbent) trying to escape imprisonment from a Shawshank-like retirement home. There are other, even more fantastic subplots, like the one about a post-apocalyptic warrior (Tom Hanks) who speaks in a clipped form of pidgin English and struggles to keep his tribe alive. We also witness the journey of Sonmi (Doona Bae), a 22nd century worker whose escape from a controlling government makes her a symbol for a generation to come.
I’m merely scratching the surface here, as there are many, many more plot lines and characters. The film deals with slavery, racial, sexual and personal identity, activism and the act of creating and receiving a story. The overwhelming enormity of this movie works for and against it, as it is undeniably an impressive achievement but, frankly, I didn’t like it and barely connected to anything in it.
It plays like a 3-hour, $100 million game of Spot the Movie Star, as all of the main cast members each play between four and eight different roles. The make-up that transforms these famous faces is extraordinary, and audiences will love the end credits which, like Coming to America, shows how many times you may have watched an actor under pounds of makeup and not realized it.
Some of the actors are playing to their strengths, while others, like Grant, are really showing us something new. It’s hard to assess Hanks’ performance, as he plays at least two characters (the survivalist nomad and a 1970s scientist) beautifully. But his other roles, especially that of a mobster, a crazed doctor and a hotel caretaker, show him hamming it up. Hanks can be wonderful when he’s subtle and not pushing too hard. Here, he’s under the impression he can vanish into a character like Daniel Day Lewis or Peter Sellers. He can’t.
Some of the story threads grew on me, while others started strong but fizzled out. The editing sometimes cleverly ties the tales together by illustrating the connective threads of water, mounting tension or moments of personal declarations of freedom.
But while the film is full of existential musings and multiple meanings, the tales are tied together in a mostly loose, ethereal way, with a shared birthmark being the only real narrative glue. The Chinese Logan’s Run rip-off is the most engaging of the stories, if only because it gives viewers a break from the relentless parade of stars hidden by make-up.
Considering that the film was directed by the Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer, whose most famous films collectively are The Matrix Trilogy and Run Lola Run, the action scenes aren’t as impressive as you’d expect but it’s as pompous, over-produced, and pseudo-brainy as those Matrix sequels. The best thing about it is how grandly ambitious it is. The worst: it sometimes feels like you’re watching seven bad movies at the same time, and, after the second hour, I was ready to go home.
This is destined for a cult following, since few will tolerate a film so overlong, hideously violent, ripe with racial stereotypes and speechifying but entirely under-developed characters. In melding The Red Violin, The Fountain and the Robin Williams drama Being Human, the result has much to say but is so full of itself, it doesn’t seem to even need an audience.
Rated R / 172 Min.