A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 of 4 stars. To read my interview with “Cloud Atlas” stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, click here.
It’s easy and somewhat appropriate to afford the unlikely big-screen treatment of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel “Cloud Atlas” the same kind of admiration typically lavished on first-time exhibitions to treacherous, far-flung locales.
But the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix” movies) and Tom Tykwer (“The International”) deserve credit for more than just pulling off their seemingly impossible adaptation of the intricate novel. The co-writer/directors have created an ambitious work of art that transcends genre and storytelling conventions — and does it all in breathtaking style.
Like the 500-page book, “Cloud Atlas” consists of six different interconnected stories that span centuries and continents. Astonishingly, the filmmaking trio keeps the tales largely intact while making canny changes to Mitchell’s storytelling framework.
Thanks to their stellar and stalwart international cast as well as a game and talented makeup team, the Wachowskis and Tykwer use the intrinsically visual nature of the medium to emphasize the interlocking nature of the stories. The principle actors all play a part in every story, whether a lead turn or a quick cameo, meaning they often depict people of different genders and ethnicities. For instance, Halle Berry portrays a Jewish-German trophy wife, a Maori plantation slave and a male Korean doctor from the future — and those are just the minor roles she plays in the truly epic movie.
As with the novel, the six stories are introduced in chronological order, although the film begins intercutting them much sooner and with great fluidity and frequency. Viewers must pay attention, but the storytelling never devolves into chaos because each tale is presented in a distinctive style and different genre.
The movie opens with a sweeping period epic set in 1849, as idealistic American attorney Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) traverses the South Pacific on business and discovers firsthand the horrors of the slave trade. The tragic artist’s drama of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a rebellious aspiring composer who finds work assisting one of his ill and aging idols (Jim Broadbent), picks up in Scotland in 1936 and is told through letters the troubled musician pens to his friend and former lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy).
In San Francisco in 1973, Sixsmith, now an elderly physicist, tips off investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) about potentially deadly corporate malfeasance at a nuclear power plant, and the movie shifts into a gritty thriller as the corrupt plant president Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant) will go to great lengths to keep his wrongdoing under wraps.
Broadbent gets to show off his impeccable timing as he plays small-time London publisher Timothy Cavendish, whose business dealings with a murderous Scottish gangster (Tom Hanks) put him on the run. When his vengeful brother (Grant) remands him to a prison-like nursing home, Cavendish plots an audacious jailbreak in the broad comedy set in the present day.
In her first English-language film, Korean actress Doona Bae takes the lead as Sonmi-451, a genetically engineered fabricant destined to live a short life as a fast-food server in 2144 Neo Seoul, where a totalitarian society in which corporations rule has been built on the flooded ruins of the old South Korean capital. When her self-awareness and cognitive skills exceeds her man-made limitations, she teams with revolutionary Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess, convincingly made over as a Korean freedom fighter) to fight the corporatocracy in a sleek futuristic action thriller sweetly spiced with romance
A different vision of the future is presented with a post-apocalyptic quest set around 2346, when human life and language have reverted to primitive states. In a Hawaiian village, Hanks plays the decent but cowardly goatherd Zachry, who becomes the reluctant guide to Meronym (Berry), an envoy of an advanced society called the Prescients, who have sent her on a secret mission.
Playing to their strengths, the directors split the production into two units, with the Wachowskis filming the 1849, 2144 and 2346 storylines in Germany and Spain and Tykwer taking on the 1936, 1973 and 2012 plot pieces in Spain.
While each subplot has been impeccably crafted, the real moviemaking magic happened in the editing room: “Cloud Atlas” moves so deftly among its half-dozen tales that it’s hard to believe the film lasts nearly three hours. While its 500-year concept is rooted in reincarnation, people of all faiths can relate to its insights about the lasting effects of love and kindness, oppression and betrayal.
For all its groundbreaking achievements in storytelling, makeup and costume design, “Cloud Atlas” has its flaws. As with the book, some of the film’s storylines are more engaging than others. While the race- and gender-bending among the cast, which also includes Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Hugo Weaving, is key to the conceit and fun to watch, it can be distracting. And the movie is just so densely packed that film-goers may need multiple viewings to really digest it, especially if they haven’t read the novel.
But in an era of repetitive sequels, remakes and blockbusters, “Cloud Atlas” offers a unique opportunity to see a meaningful, big-budget spectacle and not know exactly how the plot will unfurl from the moment the opening credits roll. Now that’s visionary.