Three directors, plus six story lines, times five centuries equals one grandly conceived, impressively mounted megaflop.
"Cloud Atlas" gene-splices genres, spans planets and leap-frogs millennia until it time-trips on its nose. Filmmakers Lana and Andy Wachowski ("Speed Racer") and Tom Tykwer ("Run, Lola, Run") combined forces to tackle David Mitchell's multi-narrative novel, which earned lots of acclaim in serious literary salons and science-fiction circles. Its novella-like tales are read, viewed or told by the lead character of each subsequent story. This sets up a series of cliffhangers that resolve as the stories climax in reverse chronological order. In every age, the theme is freedom -- romantic, creative, political -- combating the forces of repression.
If it sounds tricky to film, it is. The filmmakers have chopped the book's structure to hodgepodge, and cast the same troupe of actors as new characters in each sequence. Tom Hanks begins as a tattooed post-apocalyptic Hawaiian tribesman speaking a sing-song dialect, then reappears as a villainous colonial-era doctor, a contemporary Cockney thug turned celebrity author, an apple-pie American scientist in the '70s and a devious 1930s London landlord. This proves that a) Hanks should not do accents and b) no matter how radical the wig and putty nose, it is impossible to camouflage his essential Hanksiness.
Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Korean actress Bae Doona, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon and more do the same multi-character duty, popping into diverse ages, races and even swapping genders. Black actors play white, whites play Korean. This, plus the characters recounting dreams or memories of other realities, implies that all our fates are linked in a mystical convergence of karma, free will and reincarnation.
Malarkey. The whole exercise reeks of self-admiring cleverness. As the plot gets passed around like a bong, the tone swerves from sci-fi dystopia to gauzy period romance to historical melodrama to broad comedy to action thriller. The stories don't interlock so much as gridlock. The Tarantino/Rodriguez team-up "Grindhouse" did a better job of packaging multiple B-movies, and recycling actors between them, by energetically telling them straight through.
There are some passing pleasures to be had here. I had helpless giggles recognizing Hugh Grant's unmistakable blue eyes beneath the war paint of a cannibal chief. I enjoyed wondering why there was circuitry underneath Berry's forehead in the 22nd century. I liked the notion that world revolution will be led by cloned fast-food workers. If you love jumble sales you may enjoy finding scraps of pleasure in a 172-minute endurance test.
"Cloud Atlas" drags and drifts, weighted down by multiple, repetitious chase sequences and outbursts of Dorm Metaphysics 101. Pronouncements like, "Our lives are not our own; we are bound to each other past and present" may inspire on the page but they clunk in the theater. I'm not sure what is meant by the title "Cloud Atlas" but after seeing the movie I can tell you all about fogbound filmmaking.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 Follow me on Twitter: @colincovert