Review by Jack Erwin (@JackEComplex)
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw
Running time: 164 minutes
Fair warning: There's probably something about Cloud Atlas you're not going to like. If you've read the book, you won't like the changes the filmmakers made to your beloved cult classic (if you haven't read the book, then our advice is: duck). If you enjoy futuristic sci-fi martial arts sequences, you'll probably be turned off by the 19th century seafaring adventure (not to mention the 21st century rest home shenanigans). And if you're inclined to think that famous actors wearing prosthetic noses, ears, and teeth is self-indulgent Tom-Hanks-foolery, well, keep ducking.
Cloud Atlas is filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski's (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) adaptation of author David Mitchell's 2004 novel of the same name. The book is a difficult, albeit rewarding, read, and it practically screams, "DO NOT TRY TO MAKE A MOVIE OUT OF THIS." But, of course, that's exactly what the Wachowskis and Tykwer have done, employing unconventional methods of funding (the movie was financed primarily by German sources) and filming (six sets, three directed by the Wachowskis, three by Tykwer) to achieve their means.
The result is a film that attempts to be a lot of things to a lot of people, primarily because the source material demands it. Cloud Atlas tries to be deeper than the book it's based on, and, ultimately, fails in a way that's inconsequential to anyone but cranky film critics. It tries to make you think Halle Berry could be a white trophy wife in 1930s France, and that Jim Sturgess could be a Korean freedom fighter in 2100s Seoul. But that's the point: It tries.
Cloud Atlas, the movie, takes the six-disparate-stories-as-nesting-dolls plot of Cloud Atlas, the book, and turns the narrative into a quick-cutting cinematic yarn. The 19th century maritime slave epic flows into the pre-WWII doomed love story, which flows into the '70s Sierra Club Blaxploitation shoot 'em up which flows into the 21st century publishing industry/rest home comic relief which flows into the apocalyptic Neo Seoul of 2144 which flows into the really fucking apocalyptic Hawaii of the 23rd century. And then back again, rinse and repeat. It's both the only way the book could have been made into a movie and the only way the movie could hold an audience's attention for its 164 minutes.
The whole enterprise is a testament to good old-fashioned artistic ambition, and unless you're a spectacular hater, it should be applauded. From an early shot of a buck-toothed Tom Hanks sifting human teeth on the coast of Majorca, Cloud Atlas gives the impression that the cast and crew had an absolute blast making it. If you can't smile watching Hanks sport a prosthetic cauliflower ear and spend three minutes in the most badass role of his career, or Hugh Grant mug his way through a burn mask, then stick to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
And give credit where it's due. Yes, Cloud Atlas has white actors playing roles outside their race. It also has black actors and Korean actors playing outside their races, as well as guys playing girls—none too convincingly. Which, perhaps, is the point: This is art, as in "artifice." If you want rigid realism, try the excellent Argo (or the so-so, somewhat lazy Paranormal Activity 4).
Sure, the filmmakers took the project a little too seriously. The official synopsis itself is preposterous: "An epic story of humankind in which the actions and consequences of our lives impact one another throughout the past, present, and future..." That doesn't mean you have to approach it the same way, though. Does Cloud Atlas work as a cinematic treatise on reincarnation and the transmutation of souls across the space-time continuum or some such nonsense? Of course not—that's bullshit mumbo jumbo. But is it a violent, funny, sexy, touching piece of moviemaking fun? Absolutely. Peel your wig back and enjoy.
Review by Jack Erwin (@JackEComplex)