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If there’s anything worth praising in Cloud Atlas, the colossal adaptation of David Mitchell’s nesting doll of a novel, it’s the spectacle. Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski leave no ambition unexplored in their attempt to film an allegedly ”unfilmable” story, which spans hundreds of years of humanity in the pursuit of a unified theory of life. It is a film with a thousand moving targets, all of them together darting impossibly out of reach.
Yet, Tykwer and the Wachowskis still take aim, as all good windmill-tilters do. Their reward? A heavy-handed, mediocre epic that treats love as foolishly as Crash infamously treated racism — and, I hope, a cautious admiration for their bold aims. Cloud Atlas tries and fails to be something dramatically different. The film shouldn’t be celebrated, but the filmmakers deserve recognition for taking such a risk.
Cloud Atlas: Hanks and Berry
(Photo by Jay Maidment)
Those who have read the novel — or, more to the point, those familiar with most adaptations of experimental fiction — should prepare themselves for a severe interpretation of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. There is little to no subtlety in this film. It follows six storylines of distinct genres: a Pacific travelogue set in 1850, a melodramatic romance in 1931, a whistleblower mystery in 1975, a slapstick comedy set during contemporary times, a dystopian sci-fi adventure in the near future, and post-apocalyptic thriller set centuries later. Here’s the gimmick: The characters are different, and while each story injects its own idiosyncratic imagery to the film, the stable of actors remains the same throughout. (The usual suspects, often hidden under heavy makeup and prostheses, include Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw.)
At best, the recurring cast adds a much-needed sense of familiarity to Cloud Atlas‘s touch-and-go visits to each story. (Because the film demands such a wide variety of characters, the Wachowskis and Tykwer also use the opportunity to normalize gender-bending personalities and tinker with the structural concepts of racial identity.) At worst, however, the repeated costume changes resemble what you might see in a particularly resourceful episode of Saturday Night Live. It’s difficult to see Hanks, for example, as anyone except Hanks, whether he’s playing a British gangster or a cowardly tribesman.