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Review: ‘Cloud Atlas’ Aims to Be Profound, But Falls Gloriously Short

Doona Bae in 'Cloud Atlas' (Warner Bros.)
Doona Bae in ‘Cloud Atlas’ (Warner Bros.)
Wildly ambitious, visually sumptuous, and head-achingly confounding, Cloud Atlas is an experience that aims to be profoundly moving. The film, an adaptation of a novel by David Mitchell, paints on a huge canvas spanning six different time periods and hundreds of years, all featuring a relatively small cast, led by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, with multiple key roles played by Doona Bae (above), Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Ben Whishaw.

The film begins on a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean in 1849, moves forward to England in 1936, shifts to San Francisco in 1973, jumps to London in 2012, leaps to Neo-Seoul in 2144, and ends up on a primitive planet 150 years “after the Fall.” The individual stories are linked by the actors who appear in them, each time assuming a different character with a different perspective on life; sometimes their characters are heroic, sometimes villainous; sometimes they are leading players in the story, sometimes they are bit players.

The basic idea seems to be that every living being is connected in some way, whether within the same time period or in one life after another. Using the same actors in different time periods reinforces this idea, but it edges too close to parody to be effective, especially because some of the actors are not up to the requirements of their multiple roles. Sad to say, this may be the worst performance I’ve seen by Tom Hanks; his attempts at accents are better-suited to comedy sketches on Saturday Night Live. And applying “Korean” makeup to Caucasian or African-American actors, or, conversely, applying “white-face” makeup to an Asian actor, is patently ridiculous and borderline offensive.

The project is a collaboration between Tom Tykwer and Wachowski siblings Andy and Lana, with the trio sharing credit for the screenplay. The Wachowskis directed the segments set in 1849, 2144, and “after the Fall,” while Tykwer handles the episodes in 1936, 1973, and 2012. The entire film shares a similar aesthetic, with an emphasis on the individual visual splendor of each time period, but a disregard for innovation or clarity in the action sequences that pop up.

Beyond the simple-hearted “message” that the filmmakers clearly yearn to impart, the stories themselves are far too familiar and rely too heavily upon stereotypical narrative beats to compel interest on their own merits. Once the time periods are established chronologically, the filmmakers begin jumping around between them, hoping to establish those spiritual, spatial connections that the characters occasionally mention explicitly.

It’s been suggested by other critics that multiple viewings will bring greater insight into the film as a whole. That may be, but after a single viewing, my biggest complaint wasn’t with the complexity of following a narrative fractured into six different time periods, or with performances that were often embarrassing in their nearly-amateur nature, or even with the simplicity of the film’s message. No, my biggest complaint is that the film doesn’t add up to much more than a very pretty, elaborately-constructed puzzle box — without much of a puzzle to solve.

Still, it’s a wonder to behold, and is best seen in the theatrical environment.

Cloud Atlas opens across the Metroplex on Friday, October 26. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.