Film review: Cloud Atlas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 5:44am

Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Bae Doo-na, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Zhou Xun
Director: Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski
Category: IIB

With six different plot threads twined together, Cloud Atlas is as lofty-minded as the title suggests. Based on another so-called unfilmable novel - this one by British author David Mitchell even used a different literary style for each subplot - the book and movie both tackle big spiritual ideas. But the film's grand conceit in the clouds is not quite supported by the Atlas weight of its interwoven stories.

Monumental enough to require three directors, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (formerly Larry), the epic is as difficult to explain as Inception, spanning past, present and future linking characters and themes that seemingly have no connections. They include a noble abolitionist on an ocean crossing journey in the 19th century, a 1920s homosexual composer who commits suicide, a 70s journalist working on a nuclear reactor story, a modern day book publisher who gets into debt, a futuristic Seoul with cloned slaves and an even farther along future on a Pacific island (though it looks more like a primitive past) with spaceships and shamans.

The other well publicised gambit of the production required its stars (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and others) to play numerous characters crossing race, gender and age. Why? Because it's part of its earnest theme about karma and how we are all interdependent through time, space and causality. "Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others past and present," says one character and the phrase is repeated into a mantra. Think of Cloud Atlas as Crash with metaphysics and time travel.

As stories crisscross, conjuncted by details like shared birthmarks and journals and writings of one character that another in a different period reads, the cumulative episodic effect is less cinematic transcendence than overwhelmed distraction. In short, it's hard to focus on the forest if you're constantly thinking about one tree's relation to another.

The multi-role device is also quite distracting. As an audience, you end up thinking "Look, it's Tom Hanks as a cockney gangster! And isn't that Hugh Grant as a marauder with face paint? Wow, is that really mainland star Zhou Xun as a white woman with dirty blonde hair?" Just as jarring are the future Hawaii segments with Hanks and Berry jiving it up in a Jar Jar Binks' patois. Some of the humour is intentional, such as Hugo Weaving in drag as a nasty nurse in an old-age home. There's also a priceless and demented Soylent Green reference.

It's not that Cloud Atlas is a terrible movie. Far from it. It's a noble failure that aims high but falls very short.

At 172 minutes, it could use a judicious edit of entire scenes and story lines to refine its trans-generational Kumbaya chorus of fate, truth, freedom and love.

By the way, the whole controversy of white actors given Asian facial prosthetics becomes an ironic joke since Zhou and South Korean actress Bae Doo-na have such huge eyes. They make Hugo Weaving and other non-Asian cast members' squinty slants that much more embarrassing.

Cloud Atlas opens today