A period piece, in six periods
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 26, 2012
If ever there existed an unadaptable book, it’s “Cloud Atlas,” David Mitchell’s 2004 novel that possessed a daunting, densely woven multi-part structure, characters who appeared and reappeared throughout six eras and even an original, never-before-heard language. A metaphysical meditation that careered from the 19th century to the 24th -- zigging, zagging, doubling back and hairpinning along the way -- “Cloud Atlas” was an unparalleled work of literary and moral imagination, an ambitious ziggurat that took readers to the heights of wordplay, philosophy and storytelling itself.
It seems altogether appropriate that it has taken not one but three filmmakers to bully “Cloud Atlas” to the screen: A structural and narrative challenge as prodigious as this needs many hands -- not to mention genres and tastes -- on deck to bring the multitudes it contains to life.
While Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski haven’t necessarily expanded on Mitchell’s book, they’ve done a superlative job making it legible onscreen. “Cloud Atlas” deserves praise if only for not being the baggy, pretentious disaster it could have been in other hands.
At its simplest, “Cloud Atlas” tells the interlocking stories of several characters over a 500-year span: Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a San Francisco lawyer traveling in the Pacific Islands in 1849; Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a brilliant young composer plying his trade in pre-World War II Britain; Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist investigating environmental corruption in 1973 San Francisco; Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a London publisher on the professional and personal ropes; Sonmi 351 (Doona Bae), a genetically engineered service worker laboring in New Seoul in 2144; and Zachry (Tom Hanks), the indigenous inhabitant of an island engaged in perpetual tribal warfare in the 2300s.
How these disparate players intersect becomes the labyrinthine game of “Cloud Atlas,” in which each story line gets its own distinctive look and tone: historical drama for Ewing; “Masterpiece Theater”-worthy tastefulness for Frobisher; “French Connection”-era naturalism for Luisa Rey; cozy British comedy for Cavendish; Wachowski-esque pop futurism for Sonmi and scarified post-modern Primitivism for Zachry.
Those visual cues work well in helping viewers make sense of the dizzying time-trips “Cloud Atlas” takes them on; more controversial is having the same actor portray characters in every subplot, a choice that is surely motivated by Mitchell’s interest in reincarnation and trans-historical truths but that occasionally feels like an exceptionally elaborate stunt.
The prostheses can be downright distracting, especially some cheesy-looking rubbery noses and Hanks's aggressively rotting teeth in the 19th-century sequences.
The danger of casting such big name stars in so many roles (I haven’t even mentioned Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving, who ably play the heavies in “Cloud Atlas’s” many pieces, or a similarly effective Susan Sarandon) is that anything as subtle as a performance is next to impossible. One of the small miracles of “Cloud Atlas” is that every actor manages to create a palpable, even memorable character, within a structure that threatens to blow apart from its own concentric force.
As a parable of connectedness, liberation and progressive martyrdom (each protagonist grapples with some form of oppression, based on race, sexual orientation, gender, age, genetics or planetary origin), “Cloud Atlas” conveys exhilaratingly humanist values, whether couched in the cinematic vernacular of computer-game kitsch or twee British slapstick.
The question is whether such a vast, complicated piece of literature really needed to be reduced -- however thoughtfully -- into vignettes of Hollywood genre (vignettes, admittedly, that add up to a nearly three-hour sit). At its most on-the-nose, the movie suffers from sanctimony that is probably inevitable when evoking the Eternal Now.
At its best, though, “Cloud Atlas” represents just the kind of nerve and ingenuity that movies so desperately need these days. As a hymn to mutability -- human and cinematic -- “Cloud Atlas” reaches for the high notes and hits them often enough.
Contains violence, profanity, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.