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.
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.
For that same reason, there's no totality to the experience. In a failed compensational effort, the directors use voiceovers from their characters that bleed from one segment to the next with sometimes painfully obvious results. "Our lives are not our own," someone says over one particularly blatant transition. At other times the dialogue enforces a sentimental framework that's borderline preachy: "This world spins from the same unseen forces that twist our hearts," reads one line that could have been excised.
Notwithstanding its writing problems, "Cloud Atlas" is a remarkable showcase of the acting process because it allows us to watch many actors perform under numerous guises. Several lead castmembers appear in various forms throughout the movie, speaking and looking vastly different each time out, but still serving as signposts that point to their other roles. Among them, none is more conspicuous than Tom Hanks, whose shifting appearances come across like scene changes between unfunny sketches on "Saturday Night Live." No matter how much he alters his accent, he's just too recognizable as Tom Hanks to make the connective tissue of the narrative hold together.
But Hanks isn't the only familiar aspect of "Cloud Aspect." As it contains many stories, it calls to mind many movies. Credit for the structure's precedent should go not only to the novel but to D.W. Griffith's silent opus "Intolerance," which also hops between multiple time periods; as a series of puzzle pieces that the filmmakers trust the viewer to put together, the viewing experience sometimes plays out like a supersized "Memento." Nearly every genre in play here calls to mind superior examples. "Cloud Atlas" is a bloated pop spectacle that never holds together but often elegantly flails about, resulting in a noble failure akin to Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" treatment for its appropriating of blockbuster ingredients to make sweeping philosophical statements.
Despite of the issues plaguing "Cloud Atlas," there's no doubting the sense of ambition that pushes it forward. Tywker's involvement aside, "Cloud Atlas" fits well within the distinctive oeuvre of the Wachowskis, who manage to come out swinging with each new project with negligible concern for landing every target. Certainly their weakest effort since the two "Matrix" sequels, "Cloud Atlas" is nonetheless a quintessential Wachowski production.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warner Bros. releases "Cloud Atlas" October 26. It will generate plenty of interest for the popularity of the book, the Wachowskis, the bizarre epic plot and the cast, but ultimately may have a hard time doing strong business in the long term.