I think it’s important to point out that Andy and Larry Wachowski, a.k.a. The Wachowski Brothers, who wrote and directed the fan beloved The Matrix (1999) and the rest of that trilogy, along with the very fun film noir flick Bound (1996) (and the less than favorable Speed Racer (2008)), are now Andy and Lana Wachowski. Larry is now transgender and it’s important to note that not for sensationalism but because already Cloud Atlas is receiving flack for having non-Asian actors in Asian roles. Newsworthy headlines, sound bites and tweets are however omitting that Cloud Atlas also features male actors playing female roles, females playing males, Asians and African Americans playing Caucasians…and by the way, the same six plus actors from six different stories playing all kinds of characters all in the name of good Shakespearean-like, storytelling fun. The content of Cloud Atlas provides the means to do and say almost whatever it wants because of the messages it delivers, and the way it questions societal norms. There’s drama, mystery and sci-fi all wrapped up in a pseudo-epic adventure that at the very least gives you more movie theater time for your money. Sounds crazy I know. Does it also sound like it’s worth three hours of your time? Probably not…if it weren’t for Tom Hanks and Jim Broadbent.
The Story: Several actors including Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Broadbent and Hugh Grant (in a great turn as a flesh eating fiend) transverse time and place to create a thematic, poetic bundle of stories that interconnect through messages of love, sacrifice, freedom and survival across centuries and decades, even millenniums of conflict. The sum of the six stories lead to something of an epiphany about man’s continued, reincarnated journey through human existence. A cosmic linking (a tattoo in the shape of a shooting star on each of our characters) unites 1849 South Pacific, 1939 London, 1973 San Francisco, Contemporary London, 2144 Seoul and something that is way off in the distant future titled 106 Years After the Fall.
The Goods: The fact that the above actors cross-dress and cross-gender through all segments of the film is something of a wonder in itself. Hanks by far has the most abundant recurring characters, about six, and therefore more dramatic weight due to his screen time. You almost wish it was solely his film. Jim Broadbent too has a grand foray into comedy in the film’s third story set in today’s London as his literary agent character Timothy Cavendish gets stuck in a nursing home. It shows a comedic strength from the Wachowski’s that I haven’t seen since Bound. There are smatterings of brilliance throughout Cloud Atlas and the dialogue is extremely strong if granted there is too much of it.
Adapted from the novel by David Mitchell, the Wachowski siblings—and Run Lola Run (1998) director Tom Tykwer—do a masterful job weaving the time periods, and make-up, and messages, and meaning, etc., (I make it sound laborious, and it is at times) but the Wachowski’s make it look so effortless. As the film begins to kick off its second act, about 45 minutes in, we begin to notice playfulness with the editing. Scenes get shorter and shorter increasing intensity within each novella’s central conflict—so much so it starts to take on the same thematic and temporal cross cutting introduced in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916).
The Flaws: And that’s the major flaw for me, that Cloud Atlas “takes on” so many aspects and configurations of other films. Most curiously the episodic Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), and in particularly the Kick The Can segment directed by Steven Spielberg in which an old man finds himself in a young boy’s body trapped inside a nursing home. There’s also the first segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie in which a belligerent racist finds himself stepping out of a contemporary 1980’s saloon and into Nazi Germany. Both of these pieces come to mind while watching Cloud Atlas as do a dozen other films including Planet of the Apes (1968), Amadeus (1983) and chaptered films like Creepshow (1982) in which, like Cloud Atlas, some of the stories are way better than others. The Wachowski’s said they were inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I think these other films from their childhood crept into their subconscious instead. Even Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) and The Time Machine (2002) get reincarnated “shout outs.”
Unfortunately, there are not enough composition or style changes from one part to another, only changes in setting, make-up and wardrobe to get us a taste of something original. It makes for a very redundant and uninspired film about being inspired, and all it would take is a shake-up in camera shots, lighting (like the red elevator scene in the San Francisco story), and composition in general. Though it could almost be said the Cloud Atlas’ re-embodiment of other characters and other movies might be part of the plan.
The Call: Stow the dough. It’s a neat enough movie—with some very impressive scenes filmed in that “how did they do that” way—that has you thinking existential about life but also wishing some of the best of each of the six stories would sort-of just continue into movies of their own, particularly the ones with Tom Hanks and/or Jim Broadbent. Those two actors steal the show.
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Running time is 2 hours and 52 minutes. Other recurring characters are played by Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Doona Bae.
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