DIRECTED BY Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski
STARS Tom Hanks, Halle Berry
Forget, for a moment, the financial crisis of 2008. More than the banks at the center of that calamity, Cloud Atlas is truly something that's "too big to fail."
Obviously, this isn't to imply that this adaptation of David Mitchell's heady 2004 novel should get a pass simply because it boasts a sizable budget, a big-name cast and thematic ambitions not seen in the likes of, say, Taken 2 or most of the other films streaming through theaters these days. Rather, it's merely meant to point out that this is one of those moviegoing experiences — like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut or pretty much anything by Lars von Trier — guaranteed to divide audiences into love-it-or-hate-it camps, stoke heated water-cooler or Internet-board discussions, and leave fans and foes alike circling each other with the same wariness as West Side Story's Sharks and Jets right before they rumble. Cloud Atlas is designed to shred apathy by invoking some sort of sizable reaction from viewers, and in that respect, it's a great success.
Whether the particulars of the film succeed is entirely up to each individual audience member. One viewer's emotional insight is another's pretentious blather, and with six stories filling out nearly three hours, folks are going to be feeling satisfied or sickened — or maybe a bit of both. Dealing with themes of reincarnation, oppression and interconnectedness, the half-dozen stories would probably feel fairly conventional on their own. "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," for example, feels like a dinner theater production of The China Syndrome, while "An Orison of Sonmi-451" borrows from V for Vendetta, Soylent Green and just about every other dystopian sci-fi flick this side of The Hunger Games. Yet with Mitchell's book as the blueprint, the writer-director team of Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) streamline — yet still retain — a multi-webbed narrative structure that allows all the individual episodes to cumulatively pack a soulful punch. What's more, the principal actors all play several parts in various plotlines — this not only makes sense within the context of the film's issues, it also allows audiences the pleasurable sight of witnessing movie stars toiling like a dedicated theatrical troupe, taking on whatever roles the season's schedule requires.
The problem with many films offering multiple storylines is that interest ebbs and flows as the picture moves from one saga to the next. Cloud Atlas is unique in that all six stories are accorded equal weight and manage to maintain interest, so that when we suddenly switch to another chapter, we're not disappointed in leaving one behind but instead look forward to the one resting ahead. Chronologically, the tales take us from the mid-19th century to an unspecified time in the distant future, from "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" (Jim Sturgess as an idealist and Tom Hanks as a cheerful doctor) to "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" (Hanks as a post-apocalyptic primitive and Halle Berry as the stranger in a strange land). In between, there are episodes involving a gay musician (Ben Whishaw) hoping to make a name for himself, a journalist (Berry) seeking to expose corruption at a nuclear power plant, an avaricious publisher (Jim Broadbent) who gets his comeuppance in hilarious fashion, and a menial clone (Doona Bae) who becomes the unexpected heroine of an uprising against a totalitarian regime.
But wait — there's more! Who can resist the prospect of Hugh Grant in tribal makeup as a cannibalistic warrior? Or Hugo Weaving as the Lucky Charms leprechaun gone rogue? Or, perhaps most amusingly, Hanks as a Cockney brute who's so incensed by a literary critic's pan of his novel (Knuckle Sandwich) that he dispatches his detractor with the same élan exhibited by Theatre of Blood's Vincent Price when he silenced his critics? Having the same actors turn up over and over, particular in minor roles that rest outside the main action (Hanks as a hotel clerk, Broadbent as a Korean musician, etc.), seems like stunt casting — and perhaps it is, to a degree. But the decision is ultimately a sound one, with the perpetual presence of the familiar faces working toward the idea that all of humanity is inexorably tied together, and that our stories — whether conveyed through writings, music, media or plain old campfire chats (all evidenced here) — serve as essential ripples shimmering over the ocean of time.