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by Eric Kohn
September 9, 2012 1:19 AM
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With 'Cloud Atlas,' the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer Aim Big and Fire All Over the Place, Just Like the Book

Tom Hanks in 'Cloud Atlas.'
David Mitchell's metaphysical 2004 novel "Cloud Atlas" encompasses six different time periods joined together by themes and incidents that mirror each other in wildly different contexts, a layering device that draws out the notion of individuals connecting across many lives without fully realizing it. Intentionally enigmatic in its fragmented structure, "Cloud Atlas" seemed insurmountable on paper. The three-director credit for the movie, a surprisingly faithful adaptation brought to life by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, underscores the magnitude of the challenge. Unfortunately, many of the factors that provoke contemplation in literary form struggle within the considerably different constraints of cinema.

[Editor's Note: This review originally ran during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. "Cloud Atlas" opens wide this Friday.]

"Cloud Atlas" begins and ends in the distant future while covering hundreds of years in between, shifting to a different period every few minutes. The decision to construct "Cloud Atlas" as a single ongoing montage is the biggest digression from Mitchell's novel, which moved forward in a chronological order and then shifted directions for the finale. As a result, the Wachowskis and Tykwer manage to cram a lot of mini-stories into less than three hours, a stunning feat for the sheer technical audacity.

"Cloud Atlas" comes across as the best possible version of this material one can hope for.
Littered with A-list actors appearing under different guises, scenes shift from one period to the next so casually that it feels as if several movies were interrupting each other. Still, the movie comes across as the best possible version of this material one can hope for. If there's anyone capable of constructing a mysterious epic, it's the Wachowskis, whose "The Matrix" world similarly contained tremendous audacity even when it floundered; Tywker, best known for "Run Lola Run," adroitly explored the same scenario with several different outcomes. "Run Lola Run" contained a structural playfulness not unlike the essence of "Cloud Atlas."

Moving beyond the way the scenes flow together, each thread holds its own strengths and weaknesses. The least interesting of the bunch is the segment that opens the film, which involves the travels of notary Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) in the Pacific Islands in 1849, where he has an eye-opening experience with an island native. But it barely settles into that encounter before moving forward to Belgium in 1931, where young gay musician Robert (Ben Whishaw) attempts to become the disciple of a world-class composer (Jim Broadbent), leading to the most tenderly somber of the stories.

As "Cloud Atlas" practically announces with each abrupt scene change: But wait, there's more. There's the muckraking adventures of gossip columnist and aspiring author Luisa Rey in mid-70's California as she investigates the shady dealings of a nuclear plan. There's the irreverent contemporary plight of book publisher Timothy (Broadbent) on the lam from gangsters. There's the dystopia of 2044, where "Neo Seoul" takes a page from "Blade Runner" and find cyborg clones enduring harsh, mechanized slave labor, while clone Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona) acts out, faces execution and explains via flashback why she chose to rebel. Finally, in a distant, post-apocalyptic future tagged "After the Fall," a nervous tribesman (Tom Hanks) in Hawaii meets a traveling woman (Berry) from a technically advanced civilization and joins forces with her to stop the brutality he encounters from a warring tribe.

The opening minutes of the movie outline each of these plots; then it's just rinse, wash, repeat for the remaining 160-odd minutes. There are glimmers of solid visual conceits, decent acting and intriguing developments within each fragment. Broadbent's modern-day tale stands out for its entertainment value and the "Neo Seoul" narrative nicely echoes the drearily stylized futurism of "The Matrix." The '70s yarn maintains the feel of classic espionage and boasts a gripping car crash sequence. The checklist of highs and lows could go on and on -- this is one dense movie.

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  • Larry | December 22, 2012 12:52 PMReply

    Worst movie since A Boy And His Dog. A smarter man would have taken a hint from the $2.00 ticket price. I should have stayed home and "entertained" myself by jamming toothpicks under my fingernails for 3 hours.

  • roger fulton | October 31, 2012 7:48 PMReply

    needed to review comments to get a first hand play by play of what to expect B4 I go tonight.
    S0unds complicated. Now that I know, I can better understand what to look for.
    We'll see.

  • noah | October 24, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    Wow. I'm suprised. I guess you knew what to give your online audience. But this film moved, and was "conducted" like any famous and well done movie from the past. Most importantly it wasn't at all confusing. I hate confusing movies. I always post when they are released, because it's sad. This was not one of them.

    As far as the ending it's not supposed to be "emphereal" like some people would hope (though I felt it was that). We are supposed to be the ending. That's the whole point of the movie.

    I also have never heard so many people laugh while watching a sci-fi/drama movie and still seem to enjoy it.

    Will this be one of those cases where critics take back their reviews (and re review) like many cases in the past? We'll see. To each his own.

  • Larry | December 22, 2012 12:55 PM

    I was puzzled by the laughter as well. I think it was in anticipation of every scene being the last . . . but alas . . . the movie seemed to go on for about 3 days.

  • oops man | October 24, 2012 5:03 PM

    lol. *ethereal

  • Radu | September 9, 2012 1:53 AMReply

    "Certainly their weakest effort since the two "Matrix" sequels". Do you mean to say it's worse than "Speed Racer"? That means B- is way too high a grade.

  • george | September 9, 2012 2:31 PM

    I agree with the review and also believe that B- was t o high a grade

  • Eric | September 9, 2012 1:40 PM

    I actually like "Speed Racer."

    The letter grade process is pretty subjective and entirely the result of the context for each given film. In this case I wouldn't want to give "Cloud Atlas" anything less than a B- because there's a lot that's impressive about it.