Opens Friday at Scotiabank
Imagine that you're surrounded by scripts of disparate genres-science fiction, farcical comedy, period drama-all lacking that certain something. The solution? Tie them all together in one film with the thinnest of thematic threads and voila: a masterpiece?
This is not how it happened, as the film was adapted from David Mitchell's best-selling novel. But Cloud Atlas, the star-studded, time-travelling epic co-directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix fame) feels more like an expos‚ on the sameness of formulaic Hollywood scriptwriting than it does an existential lesson on how "from womb to tomb our lives are bound to others." Publishers Weekly called Mitchell's book "audacious, dazzling, pretentious and infuriating"-the review serves as a decent summation of the film.
The plots span centuries: in 1849 a clerk (Jim Sturgess) is sent to the Pacific Islands to negotiate a slave contract, only to be poisoned by Tom Hanks. In 1936 a struggling composer (Ben Whishaw) acts as an amanuensis to a great composer (Jim Broadbent), and writes letters to his lover back home; in 1973, the lover (James D'Arcy), now aged, tells a reporter (Halle Berry) about a powerplant cover-up. Her life is endangered but she is saved by nuclear scientist Tom Hanks. A present-day publisher (Broadbent again), extorted by a Cockney Tom Hanks, finds himself in a nursing home. New Seoul in 2144 offers a twisted and gruesome extrapolation of Darwin's theory, and needs a martyr (Doona Bae) to effect change. A few hundred years later we see Tom Hanks defending his village from a cannibalistic Hugh Grant and speaking to a visitor (Berry again) in a kind of space-age Forest-Gump-Middle-Ages mashup. Just assume that Hanks will show up in almost every plotline, dressed in bizarro prosthetics. (You'll recognize him: he's the one with the worst accents.)
Some story threads may offend rather than enlighten: Asian people will eat anything, apparently, and Scottish national soccer fans, known for their politeness abroad (it's true: look it up) are vile. On more than one occasion characters become caricature and disrupt the film's serious intent.
In terms of casting, gender and race are erased: black plays white, men play women. It's a beautiful thing, but a prosthetics-and-makeup nightmare in places. Hugo Weaving (who starred in the Wachowskis' Matrix trilogy) makes for a remarkably convincing Nurse Ratched, but elsewhere results are mixed. And if you are keeping score, Hanks, Weaving, Sturgess, Bae and Berry each play six roles; Broadbent and Susan Sarandon, as a witch doctor in one plotline, play four. Stay for the closing credits to tally up.
But for all its CG flash and captivating production design, this three-hour magnum dopus feels like there was an incident at the local multiplex, resulting in five movies cobbled together. Themes of imprisonment, escape, faith and rebirth do resound in every story, punctuated by thuddenly preachy lines like "all boundaries are conventions, easily transcended" or "death is only a door" or "by each crime we birth our future." But good lines in a novel do not a good film make.
Excellent performances by all but Hanks (offering one or two of his worst) can't save this glossy epic from fading from memory the moment you leave the theatre.