Words like audacious and ambitious will be used to describe the sprawling three hour saga from co-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. Based on a novel by British author David Mitchell, it’s a non-linear epic that connects six characters—make that souls—throughout different times in history. It is audacious and ambitious, and all those other “a” words, but I’d add another word to the mix—baffling.
Careening through history like a time machine with a broken steering wheel, the movie jumps from the Pacific Islands circa 1849 to 1973 San Francisco, to Cambridge and London in the 1930s and present day to Neo Seoul in 2144 to a time known as 106 years after the Big Fall.
The structure seems random at first, but as the running time ticks on connections begin to assert themselves and through lines emerge. Each story has a distinct look and feel—Neo Seoul is futuristic, present day London is pitched almost like Benny Hill meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—but share a common cast. Each actor plays many characters—to stop your mind from wandering you may find yourself playing a Where’s Waldo game, trying to identify the actors in their various guises.
Genders are bent and ethnicity skewed to make the point that each of these people are connected, their souls passed form one time frame to another. It’s as if we’re watching a history (and future) of civilization seen through a handful of people. “Our lives are not our own,” the film tells us, “we are bound to each other from womb to tomb.” In other words these characters are replaying their lives throughout eternity, raising questions of fate versus destiny.
It’s heady stuff, much of it, but while there are loads of ideas on display, only one is hammered home. The idea that we are all connected, while spiritually satisfying, is the most simplistic of the movie’s concepts. We get it in the first hour, it’s reinforced in the second and by the end of the third act you want to scream, “I know! I know! We’re all connected!”
It’s heavy handed concept wise, but there is much to enjoy here. The performances are strong. They have to be to battle with the nonlinear structure that sees these stories seemingly randomly cut and pasted together as the trio of directors slowly connect the story’s dots.
It’s a pleasure to see actors like Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving push their boundaries. Hanks takes on multiple characters with fake teeth, fake hair and in one case, even a really fake accent.
The action scenes, however, are a let down. Surprisingly for directors who redefined movie action in their “Matrix” trilogy, the anticipated Wachowskis touch is missing in the bigger set pieces.
“Cloud Atlas” is a sincere attempt to bring a difficult novel to the screen, and even though the filmmakers include a scene where a critic is thrown off a balcony to his death, literally exploding in a gory gusher, I have to admire it’s scope, if not it’s execution.
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