Review

Moments of brilliance found in clutter of 'Cloud Atlas'

Casting actors in multiple roles adds to the film's fogginess

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.comOctober 26, 2012 

  • Cloud Atlas C Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski Website: cloudatlas.warnerbros.com Length: 2 hours, 52 minutes Rating: R (violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)

There are usually two reasons people call beloved books “unfilmable:” They’re extraordinarily long and detailed, or they’re too thematically complex to depict.

The first drawback can often be overcome: See “Gone With the Wind” or any of the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

The second problem often can’t. The most recent proof is “Cloud Atlas,” where flashes of storytelling brilliance break through a philosophic murk with feeble irregularity.

Friends and co-workers unanimously praise David Mitchell’s sprawling, well-integrated novel, which I have not read. But the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, who wrote and co-directed the film version, make little sense of the source material.

It unfolds as six stories, integrated loosely by the casting of the same actors in different roles. The stories have only one thing in common: Each is about someone who’s trapped, physically or psychologically, and must use violence to attain freedom.

A lawyer (Jim Sturgess) is asked to help a Pacific Islands slave reach liberty in the 1840s. A young composer (Ben Whishaw) becomes the amanuensis to an elderly man who steals his work in the England of 1936. A reporter (Halle Berry) looks into an unsafe nuclear plant in 1973 San Francisco. An unscrupulous publisher (Jim Broadbent) gets stuck in an old-age home by his creepy brother in 2012.

Two futuristic stories take place in the mid 2100s and roughly 2500. In the first, an inhuman Korean “fabricant” (Doona Bae) is taken from virtual slavery to lead a revolt. In the second, a Hawaiian islander living long after a nuclear holocaust (Tom Hanks) guides a scientist to a dormant observatory, so she can summon help from the stars.

The movie undoes itself over and over. The directors cut back and forth among stories, trying to reinforce the impression of interconnectedness, but each tale seems superficial and each character a stereotype. (The publisher, inserted for comic relief, could’ve been dropped.)

Celebrity casting turns the picture into a stunt. When we should be focusing on emotional dilemmas, we’re thinking, “Look at those false teeth on Tom Hanks! Is that accent Irish or Cornish? Hey, I don’t think Halle Berry has shown up in this sequence yet!”

Meanwhile, pseudo-profound dialogue gets repeated across eras: “Our lives are not our own, womb to tomb. We are bound to others, past and present, and every day we birth our futures.” Or my favorite (said by villains): “We all are meat, and the strong do eat.”

I suppose the filmmakers want us to believe human souls transmigrate from generation to generation, sometimes into good people and sometimes into evil ones. (Although Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving will always be wicked, poor devils.) The movie begs the concept of free will: Though each character chooses his destiny, there’s mumbo-jumbo about “the nature of our immortal lives (being) the consequence of our words and deeds.”

The Wachowskis clearly relished the chance to make a fourth “Matrix” installment in the Korean segment, which lets American and British actors tape their eyes back, Asian-fashion, and do “ah-so” accents. (Many accents in the picture are poorly kept up.)

The inhuman “fabricant” has two states: sleeping and serving, as a waitress in a fast-food bar. The leader of a rebellion, a mysterious man in a long leather coat, frees her from her know-nothing servitude and asks her to speak truth to the deluded populace of New Seoul, while nasty men – including Weaving, using his constipated Agent Smith voice – try to kill her.

No expense was spared on the makeup, which is Oscar-worthy, or action sequences. But not enough attention has been paid to details: A character can plunge hundreds of feet to presumed death, then pop up in another scene without injury or explanation.

A few of the actors register briefly as real people: Whishaw’s turbulent composer, David Gyasi as the slave seeking liberation, James D’Arcy as a conscience-stricken scientist who writes a condemning report on the nuclear reactor.

But the leads keep passing by, newly decorated each time yet clearly recognizable, like floats in a parade that acquire fresh decorations from block to block. And a tale that ought to dispel the clouds of mystery surrounding life gathers them into impenetrable fog.

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