“Cloud Atlas” is a weird and wild storytelling odyssey that follows a single soul through the centuries.
Like last summer’s “Prometheus,” “Cloud Atlas” is a bold film with dynamic visuals that doesn’t live up to its ambitions. Unlike “Prometheus,” though, “Cloud Atlas” doesn’t collapse under its own weight because of a ridiculous script. At nearly three hours long, “Cloud Atlas” seldom slows its pace and remains entertaining the whole way through. That in itself is a remarkable feat.
Based on David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, “Cloud Atlas” weaves together six stories that range in place and time from a South Pacific voyage in 1849 to a post apocalyptic future set 106 years after “the fall.” The protagonists of each story apparently are the same person reincarnated over time and they are played by Jim Sturgess (1849), Ben Wishaw (1936), Halle Berry (1973), Jim Broadbent (2012), Doona Bae (2144) and Tom Hanks (after the fall).
These actors also appear, usually under heavy makeup, as different characters in the other stories. Also playing multiple roles are Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Keith David and several others. Hugo Weaving is the villain in most of the stories because, you know, he’s Hugo Weaving.
Directing duties have been divided between Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run” and Andy and Lana Wachowski of “The Matrix” (formerly known as Larry, Lana Wachowski underwent a sex-change procedure some time after making “Speed Racer”). Tykwer and the Wachowskis direct three segments apiece. Tykwer handles the present-day story and the two set in the 20th century, while the Wachowskis handle the 19th century story and the two set in the future.
The stories often change abruptly, and until you get a hang of the movie’s flow, watching “Cloud Atlas” is like flipping through cable channels. But it doesn’t take long for the stories to make sense and for patterns to emerge from the narrative patchwork. The tales are connected. A diary from 1849 becomes a book in 1936. A young man from 1936 story reappears as an old man in 1973. The present-day story inspires a film watched by characters in 2144.
Actions in every story ripple through time. Themes of captivity and liberation are repeated. Dialogue and motifs (such as images of people falling from bridges) reoccur. A throwaway “Soylent Green” joke in one story portends horror in another. The six heroes, each with a birthmark that resembles a shooting star, dream of their past and future lives.
A major reason “Cloud Atlas” works and is able to sustain interest for nearly three hours is that whenever a storyline threatens to become dull, a more interesting one cuts in. The three best stories are the one set in the present and the two set in the future.
The present-day story, which is the only one played for comic relief, features Broadbent as a British publisher sent against his will to a mental home. This one has Weaving in drag as a Nurse Ratched-type antagonist.
The 2144 story is the one that could probably stand on its own if it were expanded to feature length. It takes place in Korea in its capital, New Seoul, which looks like Coruscant from the “Star Wars” prequels. Korean actress Bae plays Sonmi-451, a cloned slave forced to work at her society’s answer to Hooters. Sonmi is rescued by the dashing Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess), who trains her to become a revolutionary leader.
The end-of-days story may be the final one chronologically, but it opens and closes the film. This takes place in a “Planet of the Apes”-style dystopia where technology is scarce. Hanks is Zachry, a member of a primitive tribe who leads Meronym (Berry), who comes from an advanced civilization, on a quest to save what remains of mankind.
The details of their quest are hazy because Hanks speaks a type of baby talk similar to Jodie Foster’s in “Nell.” Several crucial plot points, and some of the films morals, are obscured because they are conveyed by gibberish. However, Hanks is such an empathetic actor we can understand his thoughts even when we don’t know what he’s saying.
The other three stories are period melodramas that thankfully don’t linger. In the 1930s story, Wishaw (the new Q in the upcoming Bond movie) is a young British composer bedeviled by an older composer (Broadbent). In the 1970s story, Berry is an investigative reporter looking into reports of skullduggery in a nuclear power plant outside of San Francisco. This story gives Grant his best role as the smarmy head of the power company.
“Cloud Atlas” will become known as “the makeup movie.” It is “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao” squared. Sometimes the makeup is obvious, but the actor beneath is not. Fortunately, there is a roll call during the credits that matches all the faces.
Every actor appears in a number of guises, sometimes as another race or gender. The makeup isn’t always convincing, as when Berry plays a white woman in the 1930s. The white men playing Asian characters in the 22nd century look exactly like white men in Asian makeup. The filmmakers have been criticized as racist for this, but it is just bad judgment. When Chinese actress Xun Zhou plays a white woman near the end, her appearance is just as dubious.
Tykwer and the Wachowskis also collaborated on the script, and they retain the literary roots of their source. Books are seen and cited often, and authors are quoted, particularly Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Solzhenitsyn’s words bolster one of the primary themes, which is personal freedom. The other major theme is our connection to each other. The film’s signature quote, delivered by Sarandon, is “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others.”
This is all heady, reaffirming stuff, but the messages occasionally get lost in the tides of time, which may be why Tykwer and the Wachowskis hammer them home at the end. That can be forgiven. Tykwer and the Wachowskis are visual innovators, and they team up to create a stunning and imaginative film. Few movies can truthfully be called unique. This is one of them.