A group of souls are intertwined throughout the ages, or, you know, something in Cloud Atlas, a new movie from the Wachowskis of Matrix fame.
How powerful is Tom Hanks? So powerful, so untouchable in his likeability that even after sitting through nearly three hours of aggressive philosophizing, questionable accents and ridiculous prosthetic noses I still bear the man no ill will. There’s a cockney accent that actually made my whole body cringe but it is somehow completely forgivable. His Tom Hanksness rises above.
Hanks plays a lot of parts in this movie, as do all the central actors. In brief:
In the mid 1800s, Hanks is a doctor aboard a ship traveling from a Pacific island to America. Jim Broadbent plays the captain and Jim Sturgess plays a young American who is sick as well as being sickened by what he sees of the slave trade. He helps a slave played by David Gyasi find work on the boat after stowing away.
In the 1930s, Ben Whishaw plays a young composer who gets work as an assistant to an aging composer played by Broadbent in Scotland. He’s left his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, played by James D’Arcy, behind in London and tells him about his adventures at the composer’s manor — including an affair with his German Jewish wife, played by Halle Berry (who showed up for mere moments as a Pacific Islander in the first time period).
In 1970s California, Berry plays an investigative reporter who stumbles onto the story of a disaster in the making at a nuclear plant, thanks to an encounter with an older Rufus Sixsmith, now a scientist who wrote a reporter about the plant’s problems. When the company covering up the problems finds out about the investigation, they send a hired killer played by Hugo Weaving (who appeared as the Sturgess character’s pro-slavery father-in-law in the first segment) after her and another scientist played by Hanks.
In 2012, a book editor played by Broadbent finds success with a novel after that book’s author (Hanks) throws a book critic out the window. However, a series of misadventures leads to his brother tricking him into being committed to an institution where a female nurse played by Weaving tries to keep Broadbent and a gang of fellow patients in line.
Skip forward to 2140s Neo Seoul (a city built above the water- filled ruins of the old Seoul): a clone played by Doona Bae (who also played Jim Sturgess’ wife in the first time period and a woman who gets tangled up in the chance between Weaving and Berry in the third time period) becomes a revolutionary-like figure when she runs away from the restaurant she was created to serve. She breaks free of her drone-like life with help from Sturgess’ character.
A couple of centuries later — “after The Fall” — a tribe living in the valley on a Pacific island is constantly under threat of being killed by the cannibal warrior tribe called the Kona who also live on the island. Hanks plays a man trying to protect his daughter who agrees to help Berry, a woman from a more advanced society, on a dangerous mission into Kona territory.
A story told over a campfire by Hanks as a very old man bookends the movie, with actions from the six time periods weaving around each other. Also appearing in different times as different characters are Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon.
As tangled as that all might sound, I’ve glossed over and left out a lot. This is a movie with no shortage of detail or story threads or extravagant make-up, as actors don’t just change character and time period but also skin color, facial features and gender. Whoever sold the fake noses to this movie made a mint; it seems like every main character got a couple of different shnozzes, not to mention wigs (and, shudder, accents). These details — both each detail in itself and the sum total of so much stuff to consider — make the movie ultimately much more fun as a discussion topic generator (Would clones be modern-day slaves? Was that really Halle Berry as an old Asian man?) than it is as a narrative. The puzzle never really comes together and the sweep of the story (whatever it is — something about good eventually winning out over evil? or maybe love?) is lost in all the shiny objects that are the makeovers and individual story details. I was easily distracted (Is Halle Berry white in this time period? Is that Hugo Weaving as a woman?) and could never really get a handle on who I was supposed to be following and how. Are these characters playing reincarnated versions of themselves, or is a comet-shaped birthmark the key to who is whom? I’ve heard arguments for both, but the movie leaves it vague as to which is the ruling principle. With all these construction-based questions, I had a hard time really getting into the story. I cared about the young man, writing a bittersweet letter to his boyfriend, but then a post-apocalyptic Tom Hanks shows up with his futuristic pidgin (it’s like if early man learned to speak English with only the series Firefly as a guide) and all that invested emotion dissipates like so much college freshman discussion about the nature of life.
Cloud Atlas is ambitious — which is, of course, the way you describe something that is not completely successful about executing its big idea. It is, however, complete, meticulously crafted and presented without a hint of anyone ever taking the easy road on anything. Cloud Atlas is a mess, but it’s a serious, high-caliber mess. C
Rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Written and directed by Tom Twyker and Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, Cloud Atlas is two hours and 47 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.