Now and then, a movie comes along defying shorthand description. Adapted from David Mitchell’s spinning top of a novel, Cloud Atlas exists to vex, intrigue and discombobulate unsuspecting audiences.
It tackles nothing less than the oppressors and the oppressed throughout centuries of humanity; the reverberations of karmic payback across the oceans; the dangers of “a purely predatory world” (Mitchell’s phrase); and the value of a large supply of fake noses, sported in this nutty farrago of a picture by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and their fellow customers at The Nose Store. Cloud Atlas has the air of a historical masquerade, both playful and serious.
Six storylines provide the webbing. Adapters and directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski crosscut and juggle the stories more aggressively than Mitchell did on the page. Chronologically, it begins in 1849 on a Pacific Ocean voyage, and ends in the 24th century, after a series of selfish acts have caught up with our planet. In later sequences, Hanks plays a lonely goat herder, who speaks in a throwback Uncle Remus argot reflecting the cyclical nature of all things under the sun. In the book, old Zachry observes: “Most yarnin’s got a bit o’ true, some yarnin’s got some true, an’ a few yarnin’s got a lot o’ true.” The funny thing about the film version of Cloud Atlas is that Hanks’ musings about yarnin’s is correct: Crisscrossing time zones and centuries for nearly three hours, the results are a little true here, a little more there, patently ridiculous in some aspects and quite beautiful in others.
The actors play five or six roles apiece. In 1849, a lawyer (Jim Sturgess) befriends an escaped slave (David Gyasi) while coping with a strange illness with the help of a doctor (Hanks) named Goose. In 1936, a young composer (Ben Whishaw) falls in love with the elegant Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) but hitches his wagon to a classical composer (Broadbent) working on his Cloud Atlas sextet.
Zwooop forward to the 1970s in San Francisco. Sixsmith, decades older, holds the key to a massive conspiracy involving Big Oil, a controversial nuclear power plant project and the health and safety of an investigative reporter (Berry). In the present day, Broadbent returns as a book publisher confined in an English countryside home for the decrepit and abandoned. Weaving, in drag, plays the worst of the overseers there, a woman no different in spirit than the ruddy slaveholders in the 19th-century sequences.
The most satisfying and kinetic of the tales takes us to “Neo Seoul,” a Blade Runner-y and Metropolis-based future where a “fabricant” (Doona Bae), accused of fomenting revolution against the “consumers” who control the society, is interviewed by an archivist (D’Arcy). From there it’s a short hop to 2321, a century after “the fall,” when what’s left of the world has become both advanced yet primitive. The stories don’t proceed in order of chronology; rather, they’re scrambled. Key characters share a shooting-star birthmark. “Eternal recurrence” is the theme; the actors and their various noses provide the variations.
I’ve seen Cloud Atlas twice, because I wanted to figure out why I didn’t love it. On the page, Mitchell allows each time frame to develop a rhythm and a language and some momentum before zinging over to another track. On screen, the filmmakers never stick with any one universe for long. We’re perpetually yanked out of a moment of crisis or a chase to catch up with the other narratives. The broader comedy falls flat. The “Neo Seoul” fable of revolution is strong enough to stand alone. There’s not much interest in stylistic consistency in Cloud Atlas, not with such far-flung settings.
The movie doesn’t really work, but it’s fascinating in the ways it doesn’t.
Cloud Atlas (R) ★★★☆☆