CLOUD ATLAS is an ambitious film plagued with problems that garbles its overarching themes. Some of these problems stem from its makers attempting to adapt the six novellas of the original book into a film with a running time of only(?) three hours. Others are of a more puzzling nature, troublesome and unforgivable for being something that a film from a major studio with a generous budget, rumored to be $100 million behind it, should not have.
The uneven adaptation, however, is not without its moments of brilliance, even transcendence. The stories of the six novellas, two set in the past, one in the present, and two in the future, are told in tandem rather than consecutively. It allows for moments from each time to resonate with each other with a sharp visual acuity that is arresting. Rippled glass finds its way into every story. A door begins to open in one time frame and finishes seamlessly in another. It’s more than just cinematic sleight-of-hand. The conceit finds the same actors playing different characters in each time frame, but, and here’s the tricky part, these characters are the same souls in each story. Sometimes male, sometimes, female, the race as fluid as the gender. Some evolve, some don’t, and while some have a sense of déjà vu, none, strictly speaking, remembers previous lives until we get to the far, far future, when Zachary (Tom Hanks), has flashes of moments the audience has seen before in other contexts. Zachary is also haunted by Georgie (Hugo Weaver), a feather-nailed incarnation of pure evil who whispers in his ear without being seen by anyone else.
In previous stories, Hanks is a foul-toothed 19th-century doctor, a hapless physicist who suspects the universe is against him, and a working-class British thug-turned-author before getting to Zachary, the simple but noble goatherd in the post-apocalypse interlude. In some of them he encounters Halle Berry, in one of them he encounters her character’s soul in the body of Jim Sturgess. She in turn contends with Weaver in his previous evil incarnations, as well as the person of the phhysicist (James D‘Arcy) she loved as a man (Ben Wishaw) in a previous life. That man may or may not be the archivist the character with her distinctive birthmark (Doon Bae) encounters in the nearer future where genetically engineered humans have been enslaved by the unthinking womb-born purebloods
It would have been a neat trick to be able to include the specifics of each story in the film. Instead of trying to fill in the gaps, though, the big picture tropes of true love, fighting convention, and the quest for freedom. the filmmakers have rendered the cinematic version of the symphonic opus created by Frobisher. It’s a tone poem about love, fate, and the inexorable push for some to evolve and others to fester. It saves the viewer being bogged down with exposition that would weigh down a film that needs to soar.
Each vignette also explores different genres with the same fluid ease as the characters slip in and out of corporeal existence. The adventure tale set on the high seas of 1849, a doomed gay romance in 1936 England, a thriller set in 1973 San Francisco, a farce set in present-day England, a dystopian vision of 2144’s overcrowding and crass consumerism, or the bucolic wilds of what follows in a time without a date, each is a well-crafted unit.
There is no faulting the performances, either. Hanks is obviously having a field day playing reprobates while also playing those everyman nice guys for which he is rightly renown. Berry has intensity and vulnerability, particularly as the crusading reporter in 1972 San Francisco undeterred by the considerable corporate forces arrayed against her. Truth be told, though, its Jim Broadbent’s film, proving why character actors are much more than support for the showy leads. Whether a goggle-eyed befuddled editor placed in dire straits who gamely rises to the occasion, or a, pardon the expression, soulless composer jealous of his assistant’s youth and talent, he is vibrant and effusive, damnably wicked and sympathetically over his head. Weaver, restricted to characters of pure and sometimes wickedly delightful evil, is perfectly matched to the mood, particularly as a female nurse bent on tormenting her charges with a crisp and cool efficiency. As for Hugh Grant, fine as a scheming brother with a grudge, or a dastardly industrialist, as a Wildman of the forest, complete with feathered headdress and face paint, there is something about the slope of the nose, the impeccable bearing that, while he tries very hard, still smacks of high tea at Harrods.
The unspeakably sloppy part of CLOUD ATLAS is where it is least expected. The special make-up effects. There is no problem turning Hanks into a nerdy scientist, or Berry into a blonde Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany, or even turning her into an elderly Asian doctor. It’s turning Doon Bae into a freckled blonde, or any of the men of the cast into Asians that fails miserably. The manipulation of the eyelids is amateurish, almost to the point of being insulting to the viewer. In an age of digital effects, there is no excuse for this. None.
CLOUD ATLAS should have been sublime. Instead, the profane weighs it down, diluting transcendence with trash that sullies what is genuinely admirable about it, and denying the actors the tour-de-force that would have been theirs.