"Cloud Atlas", the new film from directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (the siblings behind "The Matrix" films) and Ton Tykwer (the German sensation "Run, Lola, Run"), is not the best or most mind-blowing film you will ever see. But it deserves kudos for sheer scope of storytelling.
Six different storylines, most in different centuries, depict the intertwined stories of how people's actions affect others in the past, present and future. That is, more or less, the official synopsis of the film. I’m not sure it works as the filmmakers envision, but the directors, each responsible for specific segments, make it work.
The actors also seem to enjoy playing multiple roles, dressing up in costumes and heavy make-up to pop up in each segment as a different character. Each segment has a different central character and the actors responsible for these roles pop up in the other stories in supporting roles, sometime as a simple blink-and-you-miss-it cameo.
Tom Hanks anchors two stories, both with Halle Berry. In one of these, set in San Francisco in the early 70s, Berry plays a journalist trying to uncover the mystery behind a local nuclear power plant. Hanks plays the scientist who may have the secret she needs. Flash forward a few centuries and Hanks plays a goat herder in a post apocalyptic society. He reluctantly agrees to help Berry, a futuristic visitor, complete a quest that could help mankind. Of the two, I found the post-Apocalyptic segment to be less successful. More on that later. The San Francisco segment is more watchable because it is a more conventional action tale.
Jim Broadbent plays a book publisher in modern-day London who inadvertently checks himself into an old-folks home. This segment is one of the best because it contains a lot of dry British humor.
In Neo Seoul, Jim Sturgess plays a man infatuated with Sonmi, a futuristic waitress played by Doona Bae. He helps Sonmi break free and they try to elude the authorities and life a free life. Combining familiar elements from other sci-fi films, the story feels recycled. Interesting to watch, but recycled.
In 1936, Ben Whishaw plays Robert Frobisher, a struggling composer who goes to work for an aging great (Broadbent again). While working with the older composer, Frobisher writes the Cloud Atlas Sextet. This is actually my favorite segment because the story seems the most well-rounded. It is also the most classical and romantic, giving us something that Merchant-Ivory might have done.
In the 19th Century, Sturgess plays the lawyer for a slave trading company who is being poisoned by a doctor (Hanks again) trying to steal the young barrister's gold.
These stories don't have a lot of direct connections, but a couple of characters overlap, giving them a more tenuous connection. So why these stories? How do they connect? The connections the filmmakers try to establish seem to be more tenuous and really shouldn't work. But they do. Just.
Despite the mixed success of the characters, the actors playing multiple roles help to tie the stories together. They don't appear to be playing descendants of one another, or even characters who are connected. But watching Hanks, Berry, Hugh Grant, Sturgess, Broadbent and the others pop up in each story gives the illusion they are connected. Most of the time, it is easy to spot the actors, despite heavy make-up, but a couple of the briefest cameos slip by. And a couple of the characters elicit laughter; in modern day London, Hanks plays a Cockney gangster who has just published his memoir. When he first pops up and begins speaking, people in the audience laugh, a response that feels unanticipated and unwanted. But this moment happens early in the lengthy film, before you get used to the idea of the actors popping up in unlikely places. Or maybe you simply become resigned to the idea.
Hugh Grant pops up in most of the stories, playing everything from a slave trading reverend to a post-apocalyptic cannibal. His largest contribution is to the 1970s San Francisco segment. He plays a shifty administrator at the power plant, a part that seems the most his stereotypical on-screen persona.
Hugo Weaving appears in every segment as a villain, adding an air of menace and even humor as only he can.
Susan Sarandon and Keith David also play various roles throughout, adding a rich texture to the stories.
For a "sci-fi" film directed by the people behind "The Matrix", there is very little use of special effects to evoke a sci-fi universe. There are two sequences set in the future, but the post-apocalyptic sequence could just as easily be a western. That leaves the Neo Seoul sequence, which is fun to watch, but doesn't really push the boundaries at all – we've seen everything they show in this segment before.
Two of the segments, the 1936 segment featuring Ben Whishaw and the 19th century tale featuring Jim Sturgess, both feature voice over from the main characters, narrating the story. I understand why this choice was made, but it seems odd and jarring to have only these two segments feature this device. When the narrative begins whipping back and forth between the various timelines, it draws you out of the story to suddenly feel confronted by voice over.
The post-Apocalyptic sequence is the most difficult to get into because the characters speak in a patois that takes some getting used to. It also provides the prologue and the epilogue for the film, making for a problematic beginning. But once the film gets going and the narrative begins whipping back and forth between the stories, you get carried along by the storytelling, eager to see each new twist and turn.
"Cloud Atlas" is a strange, sprawling film trying to depict something grand and meaningful. I'm not sure it tells that story, but the sheer scope of the storytelling ensure you will never be bored.