The sky's not the limit in this well-made but dramatically diffuse potential art house blockbuster.
Not quite soaring into the heavens but not exactly crash-landing either, Cloud Atlas is an impressively mounted, emotionally stilted adaptation of British author David Mitchell's best-selling novel. Written and directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, this hugely ambitious genre-jumping, century-hopping epic is parts Babel and The Tree of Life, parts Blade Runner, Amistad and Amadeus, with added doses of gore, CGI, New Age kitsch and more prosthetics than a veterans hospital in wartime. One of the priciest independent films ever made (on a purported budget of $100 million), Atlas will rely on its chameleon cast to scale a near-three-hour running time and reach the box-office heights needed to justify this massive international co-production.
Mitchell's 500-plus-page book garnered several literary prizes and a huge following after it was published in 2004, but many would have said the novel's unique structure -- multiple storylines hopscotch time periods, going from past to future then back again -- was impossible to adapt for the big screen.
The Wachowskis (with Lana receiving her first screen credit using her new name) and Tykwer (Run Lola Run) streamline the narrative by cross-cutting among the epochs and casting the same actors in a multitude of roles. Although this helps, seeing the actors transform from old to young, black to white and occasionally gender-bended dilutes the dramatic tension.
A brief prologue features an old man, Zachry (Tom Hanks), telling a story at a campfire, and from then on, the film reveals how each plotline is a tale told -- or read or seen in a movie -- by the next.
They are, in order: an 1849 Pacific sea voyage on which a crooked doctor (Hanks), a novice sailor (Jim Sturgess) and an escaped slave (David Gyasi) cross paths; a saga of dueling composers (Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw) set in 1936 Cambridge; a San Francisco-set '70s thriller about a rogue journalist (Halle Berry) taking on a nuclear power chief (Hugh Grant); a 2012-set comedy about a down-on-his-luck London book editor (Broadbent); a sci-fi love story about an indentured wage slave (Doona Bae) and the rebel (Sturgess) who rescues her, set in "Neo Seoul" in 2144; and a 24th century-set tale of tribal warfare in which Zachry teams with a visiting explorer (Berry) in search of a planet-shaking discovery.
Despite their differences, the plot strands are tied together via sharp editing by Alexander Berner (The Debt), who focuses on each separate story early on then mixes them into several crescendo-building montages where movement and imagery are matched across time. As if such links weren't explicit enough, the characters share a common birthmark and have a tendency to repeat the same feel-good proverbs (e.g. "By each crime, and every kindness, we build our future") at various intervals.
But while the directors do their best to ensure things flow smoothly enough and that their underlying message -- basically, no matter what the epoch, we are all of the same soul and must fight for freedom -- is heard extremely loudly, no single storyline feels satisfying. As history repeats, and the same master-vs.-slave scenario keeps reappearing, everything gets homogenized into a bland whole, the impact of each story softened by a constant need to connect the dots.
Of all the pieces, those that feel most effective are the '70s investigative drama, which has shades of Alan Pakula and David Fincher's Zodiac, and the futuristic thriller, in which the Wachowskis show they still can come up with some nifty set pieces, even if the production design (by Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup) and costumes (by Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud) feel closer to the artsy stylings of Wong Kar-wai's 2046 than to the leather lollapalooza that is The Matrix trilogy.
It's hard to swallow some of the morphing -- like Hanks as a futuristic tribesman with a face tattoo and a funny way of talking. (He says things like, "Tell me the true true.") But Hugo Weaving seems to have more fun than anyone else, especially when he plays a nasty retirement-home supervisor reminiscent of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in full drag. It's amusingly disarming -- not to mention evocative of Lana Wachowski's recent gender-reassignment backstory -- in a film that aims for the clouds but often is weighed down by its lofty intentions.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Oct. 26 (Warners)
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon
Writer-directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Rated R, 164 minutes