A literary critic is thrown off a balcony in an early scene of Cloud Atlas, and like just about everything else in this sprawling look at mankind’s interconnectedness through the ages, we get the message loud and clear. Ambitious and boneheaded in equal measures, this collaboration between Andy and Lana Wachowski (the Matrix trilogy) and German director Tom Tykwer (Perfume, Run Lola Run) occasionally dazzles with its intricate yet commendably streamlined structure.
And then movie reveals its true colors as an inspirational, one-with-the-universe screed writ large. It’s not a pretty picture.
Adapted from David Mitchell’s byzantine era-hopping novel, the film tells six separate stories as one sprawling narrative that, for the most part, flows seamlessly from one timeline to the other. Both the filmmakers and the author are intrigued with the concept of a single act rippling through time and space, the butterfly effect repackaged as a self-congratulatory ode to the resiliency of the human spirit. We begin in mid-19th Century splendor, as an enterprising San Francisco notary (Across the Universe’s Jim Sturgess) on a business trip in the Pacific islands befriends a doctor (Tom Hanks, in the first of several multiple roles) whose friendly demeanor masks ulterior motives.
Wait a minute, what happened to the lush vistas? We are now in 1930s Europe, where a struggling English composer (Ben Whishaw) nabs his dream job as assistant to his idol (Jim Broadbent), a renowned composer who hasn’t produced new work in years. In the blink of an eye, the thirties turn into the seventies, as a determined reporter (Halle Berry, following Hanks’ lead) seeks to uncover rampant corruption amidst an oil company in California. Present-day London is the setting for the movie’s oasis of comic relief, as a haughty book editor (Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a nursing home against his will. Fast forward to the 22nd Century, where a clone (Doona Bae) created by a totalitarian regime residing above Seoul, South Korea’s nearly underwater ruins chooses to rise against the system. Finally, we arrive in the distant future; a cowardly tribesman (Hanks) living in primitive squalor in what was once Hawaii agrees to help an earthly visitor (Berry) now living in another planet.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer walk this daunting storytelling tightrope with aplomb. A judicious use of voiceover narration helps interweave the stories in a way that’s not too dissimilar from the source material, where the notary’s journal, or the young composer’s letters to his male lover, were read by characters in the following segment. The filmmakers’ decision to allow the stories to unfold simultaneously, however, departs from Mitchell’s approach, in which the first half of the first five tales comprised the first half of the book, the sixth and final segment occupied the book’s center with no interruptions, and then the latter portions of the remaining five made up the book’s second half in such a way that it ends with the conclusion to the 19th Century story. (Got that?)
The problem with the film’s structure is that as each individual segment progresses, a tonal dissonance takes hold, wherein, say, the broad silliness of the 2012 story, which shows Broadbent’s character plotting an escape with some fellow disgruntled seniors, clashes with the sobering reality of the Orwellian saga of Bae’s heroic clone. The Wachowskis and Tykwer’s stubborn efforts to make sure each story transitions to its next plot point at roughly the same time so they bounce off each other has the unintended effect of working against the film’s pacing.
Say this for Cloud Atlas: It might be long, but it’s never boring. It would have made an agreeable sci-fi companion to The Red Violin, a French Canadian multi-period yarn with which the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s epic shares quite a few similarities. But in a spectacular act of self-sabotage, the film turns into a self-help infomercial that goes to extreme, often violent measures to allow its characters to reach that cathartic breakthrough moment that brings on humankind’s progression. In this regard the Wachowskis are by far the worst offenders. Whereas Tykwer supervised principal photography of the middle segments (thirties Europe, seventies California, 2012 London), Andy and Lana got the beginning (1849) and both futuristic yarns. The South Korean, oppressive-regime story’s disarming cyberpunk appeal gives way to a messianic, enlightenment-through-sacrifice climax that left a sour taste in my mouth, but that’s nothing compared to the Darwinian, Apocalypto-in-steroids barbarism of the Hawaii segment, which hammers home the Wachowskis’ self-actualizing agenda in a way that throws off the delicate balancing act of everything that preceded it. In Cloud Atlas, love means never having to say you’re sorry for killing everyone blocking your path to fulfillment.
About that snarky book reviewer who takes a fatal tumble off a high-rise in Cloud Atlas’ present-day timeline? He stands for the hordes of film critics who are already pouncing on the Wachowskis and Tykwer’s blunt instrument. What they’re probably not taking into account is that not everyone is out to lambast their work. I might not be the biggest fan of the Wachowskis body of work (I actually liked Bound and the first two Matrix movies just fine), but I will always acknowledge the duo’s technical proficiency and their willingness to tackle demanding subject matter, Speed Racer notwithstanding. Next time, guys, stick with the narrating, and nix the pontificating.
After three hours of watching Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and the rest of the Cloud Atlas cast try on an ornate succession of prosthetic noses and latex skins, I was ready for something simpler. I was hoping to get my fix of brainless laughs with Fun Size, the junky, admirably un-PC Halloween-themed comedy from TV writer Josh Schwartz (Chuck, Gossip Girl). Alas, his erratic directing debut is a bipolar mishmash of coming-of-age clichés, eighties nostalgia and moronic slapstick.
The tale of a smart high school senior (Victoria Justice) who dreams about attending NYU like his late dad, a sound engineer for The Beastie Boys, had plenty of potential. By limiting her arc to a Halloween night during which she needs to find her mischievous baby brother (Jackson Nicholl, gag-inducing) after he goes missing, Schwartz turns what could have been a subversive John Hughes rehash into Superbad for tweens, only very awkwardly executed. The bright spots here are the presence of Project X leading man Thoman Mann as our heroine’s nerdy love interest and his two moms, played with NPR-listening gusto by Reno! 911′s Kerri Kenney and Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer.
Cloud Atlas and Fun Size open this Friday in wide release.