Cloud Atlas is nothing if not ambitious, a sprawling, nearly three-hour omnibus that spans eras, continents, and even galaxies. Sibling filmmakers Andy and Lana (née Larry) Wachowski, of Matrix fame and Speed Racer infamy, along with German filmmaker Tom Twyker, have taken a huge risk in bringing David Mitchell's complex, highly praised 2004 novel to the screen. Even Mitchell regarded it as the least filmable of his novels.
How successful were they in adapting Mitchell's series of six interlocking tales, one of which — the story of a goatherd in a post-apocalyptic future – was written in an almost impenetrable dialect? Not very, though you have to admire the audacity of the effort. The main points of interest are technical, especially the gimmick of having the main cast members each play six roles, including men playing women and women playing men, requiring outlandish feats of makeup trickery sure to be reckoned with come awards time.
Fun as it is to see the actors doing repertory, it doesn't compensate for the sheer juvenility of the script, with laughably hokey dialogue and pseudo-philosophical posturing that seems to be the Wachowskis' trademark.
The filmmakers broke the novel down into scenes and tried to connect them via common themes — "eternal recurrence," reincarnation, transcendence. The scenes were then edited to force linkages among the disparate stories, sometimes rather clumsily. The effect of this patchwork is dizzingly incoherent; it's like watching one of those studio preview reels of the season's coming attractions.
The stories are those of a 19th-century abolitionist lawyer (Jim Sturgess) being poisoned aboard a ship sailing from Australia; a bisexual reprobate (Ben Whishaw) who becomes the amanuensis of an ailing composer (Jim Broadbent), loosely based on the story of Eric Fenby and Frederick Delius; a muckraking journalist (Halle Berry) pursued by a corrupt oil company in 1970s America; a book publisher (Broadbent again) imprisoned in a London rest home; and the Matrix-like tale of an exploited "fabricant" restaurant worker (Doona Bae) in 2144 Korea who joins the cause of a rebel commander (Sturgess again). The center yarn, and the most absurd, features Zachry the goatherd (Tom Hanks), who speaks a barely comprehensible pidgin English.
The Wachowskis directed the two futuristic stories and the shipboard tale, Twyker the others, including the story of the publisher, Timothy Cavendish, who enlists fellow inmates to face down a mean, Ratched-like nurse (Hugo Weaving) and escape from Aurora House. That segment, unlike the others, is at least comical, if overly broad. The 1970s tale is marred by a poor period sense (see Argo for hints) and written like a bad TV action show, while the futuristic Korea narrative has a Saturday-morning serial feel, with blank facial expressions and stiff dialogue: "We must all fight and if necessary die to teach people the truth." Tying the tales together loosely is the idea of karmic progression: Tom Hanks' murderous shipboard doctor becomes the whistleblowing scientist in the '70s story, and ultimately evolves into Zachry, who rescues humanity (or some such silliness). Hugh Grant goes the opposite direction, from racist 19th-century missionary to futuristic cannibal.
The movie does Mitchell's novel no favors, and its spurious metaphysics fail to elevate the Wachowskis' gargantuan $100 million experiment to art. It does have a certain campy appeal, however, if you're game and willing to invest the time.