Cloud Atlas is a spectacle, that much is for sure.
It is a nautical yarn, a British period piece, a 1970s paranoid thriller, a rollicking comedy, a futuristic action movie, and a tribal tale, all rolled into one, and all starring Tom Hanks. You might think that sounds like an overdose of movie, and you might not be wrong—it’s definitely an overdose of Hanks—but Cloud Atlas somehow transcends its utterly hyperbolic concept to become, if not the grand undertaking its creators envisioned, at least one of the most entertaining and visually stunning films of the season.
Cloud Atlas is based upon the novel of the same name by British author David Mitchell, which was released to laudatory reviews in 2004 and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. The book has six sections spanning from 1850 to centuries into the future, each split in half and nested within each other. The ways in which the events and characters are interrelated becomes clear the further you read—the publisher in the fourth section is reading a book about the journalist in the third section, who is reading the letters that make up the second section, etc.
But the Wachowski siblings, who co-directed the movie with Tom Tykwer, of Run Lola Run fame, decided the Russian doll structure couldn’t work in a movie. (“It would be impossible,” Lana Wachowski told The New Yorker earlier this year.) The result is a film that could perhaps be the epitome of movie-making in our ADHD generation, one which dizzyingly cuts from storyline to storyline every two or three minutes for the entirety of its 172 minutes.
Although at the beginning of the movie it felt frustrating to spend so little time with each character, by the end of the movie you’ve settled into the staccato rhythm. It’s a rare three-hour movie that has flown by so fast.
However, this doesn’t mean the entire film actually works. The gist of the movie—and the book—is that the main characters in each section are reincarnated versions of each other. So you have the American adventurer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) slowly being poisoned on a ship in the Pacific in 1850; a bisexual composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), holed up in an estate with his mentor in 1931; Lusia Rey (Halle Berry), a muckraking journalist in California in the 1970s; an elderly publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), struggling financially in modern-day England; a rebellious, genetically engineered fast-food waitress, Somni-451 (Doona Bae), in futuristic Korea; and a native islander goatherd named Zachry (Tom Hanks) living “106 centuries after the Fall.”
Never mind that there are fewer than 40 years separating Rey and Cavendish—you can’t make something of this scope and expect to have every end tie up neatly. The Wachowskis are more interested in beating you over the head with the idea that souls reoccur throughout the centuries and we are all interconnected and our actions all affect each other, and, of course, our own souls.
To wit, the same actors reappear in each section: Hanks plays a malicious doctor, a greedy innkeeper, a nuclear scientist, a thug who has written a memoir, and even an actor playing Broadbent playing Timothy Cavendish. Berry appears in whiteface as Jocasta, the Jewish wife of Frobisher’s mentor, Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent again), while Sturgess appears in yellow-face as Hae-Joo Chang, a revolutionary who helps Somni-451 escape. And poor Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving represent something like the corrupting effect of evil, as characters who each grow worse as the years go on—Weaving even plays the actual devil—as opposed to Hanks, who starts out evil and ascends to good.
All of this character shifting is a little distracting. It also results in a running guessing game throughout the movie, where you find yourself playing connect the dots with the actors instead of focusing on the convoluted plot. And the plot is convoluted, despite a whittling of elements from the book.
But the most annoying part of the movie, by far, was Tom Hanks. As a doctor or an islander, his presence was irksome. Hanks is not the “everyman” actor the Wachowskis seem to think he is—he is the very American, very contemporary Tom Hanks. He is not a character actor like Broadbent, who is believably both Ayrs and Cavendish, nor does he have the captivating screen presence of Bae, a star in Korea whom I hope now will cross over.
Of course, it’s not Hanks’ fault that his main role as Zachry is in the weakest part of the movie. Ostensibly it is the thread that binds everything together—it was the central section of the novel—but the Wachowskis make some plot changes to put the ending more in line with their central thesis. Is it wrong that I wanted the evil Kona warrior (Grant, made up like a cross between a Juggalo and a member of Kiss) to kill Hanks and end that segment forever?
Even with Frobisher’s story trimmed by a lot (and set in Scotland instead of Belgium and turned into more of a gay love story), Whishaw turns in a bravura performance as an egotistical yet melancholic composer. Broadbent is delightful, as always, and the Somni-451 storyline, if looking a bit like Blade Runner, is what movie magic is made of. Cloud Atlas did not convince me of everlasting love that defies reincarnation (or something like that, which seems to be the moral of the movie), but it did remind me that outrageous vision is something lacking in most big-budget movies today. The Wachowskis (and Tykwer) have vision, and that is no small feat.