Silver Screen: Cloud Atlas ***
It took three directors and a trio of Oscar-winning actors to adapt David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, but the results suggest they could have still used some more help. That Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) were able to achieve so much but still fail to tease out the complexities of the story speaks as much to the merits of Mitchell's sprawling, amazing novel as the filmmakers' shortcomings.
The novel Cloud Atlas is a surprisingly readable postmodernist jumble of styles and storylines that traces patterns in human behavior across centuries. Mitchell's significant innovation is the book's structure, which arranges the six separate plots in chronological order. The novel's midpoint is a story about the last vestiges of humanity living decades after the apocalypse; at this point the timeline runs backwards, and Mitchell revisits each of the storylines in reverse chronological order to bring readers back to the story with which they began. It's difficult to overstate how essential that structure is not just to any one of the individual storylines in Cloud Atlas, but to the book's whole purpose. It wouldn't likely work on film, but in turning away from it the movie adaptation seems doomed before it's even started.
Instead, moviegoers are presented with a series of overlapping storylines edited into a mosaic familiar to fans of Robert Altman's Nashville and Short Cuts and P.T. Anderson's Magnolia. Tight editing and smooth transitions make it easy to watch and impressively easy to follow, even if the fragmented chronology actually serves to isolate the stories rather than bring them closer together.
The other significant decision, one far less successful, is to cast all its lead actors in multiple roles. More on that later.
If you're keeping score, the six storylines are:
Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young nineteenth-century notary, visits an island in the Pacific to broker a contact for slave trade on behalf of his father-in-law (Hugo Weaving). While on the island, he befriends a garrulous doctor (Tom Hanks) and, later, a stowaway slave (David Gyasi). On the long seafaring journey back home, one of them will prove to be his undoing and another his salvation.
Just before World War II, rakish young aspiring composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) flees disgrace to serve as the amanuensis, or musical transcriber, to a great musician (Jim Broadbent) ravaged by syphilis. He describes, in a series of letters to the boyfriend he spurned (James D'Arcy), how his time with the aging composer as well as indiscretions with his mentor's wife (Halle Berry) inspired him to write a grand work of his own.
In 1970s California, tough, pot-smoking journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) teams up with a whistleblower scientist (Hanks) and a rogue security chief (Keith David) to investigate a deadly conspiracy at a nuclear power plant.
Somewhere near the present time, elderly publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), made improbably wealthy by a surprise bestseller, flees thugs seeking his money but is tricked by his spiteful brother (Hugh Grant) into signing himself into a nursing home, where he leads other mistreated residents in an inspirational jailbreak.
In the not-too-distant future, in Neo Korea, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is a clone engineered to work in a massive fast-food chain that's part of a corporate-run society. She's freed by an agent (Sturgess) working for a rebel group trying to expose the government's misdeeds who believes she can play a key role in the revolution.
An undisclosed amount of time later, labeled only 103 Years After the Fall, the last traces of humanity have reverted back to tribalism. Tribesman Zachry (Hanks), haunted by visions of a devilish figure (Weaving), is torn when an ambassador of the last outpost of society (Berry) comes to the island seeking help. Will she bring his people prosperity, or are they plotting to overtake his homeland?
The plots could scarcely seem more disparate, and indeed each story is viewed through the lens of a different genre. There's high-seas-travel adventure straight out of Melville, a romantic love triangle, a mystery complete with shoot-‘em-up villains, broad comedy, and science fiction. The stark difference between the modes of storytelling is supposed to highlight the thematic similarities-- the irrepressible will to be free, the perils of certainty, the corrosiveness of regret, and the possibility of redemption-- and to some degree it works. A more literal connection is established between characters in each storyline: a comet-shaped birthmark that traces through all the generations.
In a sense, the choice to use the same actors across several storylines is brilliant, a perfect way to highlight the connections already suggested in the script. (It's also a handy way to keep the budget at bay.) But Tykwer and the Wachowskis significantly overdo it, using several different actors in five and six roles no matter how ill-fitting. It does a disservice to the conceptual core of the novel to muddle the significant connections with so many random ones: Hanks showing up as Frobisher's hotel manager, a non-existent link between Ewing's ship's captain and Frobisher's mentor via Broadbent, pretty much all of Grant's randomly assembled characters.
The more practical consequence of using a handful of actors to fill so many roles is the inevitable distractions it causes, especially as the ethnic modifications and spongy old-age makeup start piling up. Actors already miscast are buried under mounds of stiff prosthetics and forced into awkward racial mishmashes that seem both a little silly and a little inappropriate: Berry's pointy-nose prosthetic and ineffective whitening makeup to transform her into Frobisher's Jewish lover, Sturgess and several others made almond-eyed with fake epicanthic folds. We're spared a Korean Tom Hanks, at least. But what is added to the film by covering Bae in foam rubber and having her awkwardly attempt an accent to play an elderly Mexican woman, or cross-dressing D'Arcy to make him an evil nurse besieging Cavendish? The directors couldn’t just hire an elderly Mexican lady and an organically grown old crone?
Too many awkward missteps like this distract from Cloud Atlas's significant merits. It's exciting, if a little dumbed down, and doesn't feel at all long despite a near three-hour running time. Neo Korea is beautifully realized as a neon-lit corporate utopia, and the Tykwar-directed sequences of Frobisher composing music and bedding everyone who comes near him are almost equally handsome despite their lack of special-effects glimmer. The Frobisher and Ewing storylines impressively hold their own alongside the more obviously dramatic futuristic sequences, although the Cavendish plotline, used as padding in the novel to reset the tone after the darkest chapters, feels even more flimsy on film.
It's hugely ambitious to attempt a Cloud Atlas adaptation, but that still doesn't make it a good idea. Though one character defensively dismisses hippie-dippy. everything-is-connected sentiment-- a line taken straight from the novel-- the movie definitely lapses into it, with its confusion of cross-cast roles and softening of the novel's darker passages, especially the futuristic sections. The film is an odd thing, too long and brainy to be a blockbuster, too simplified to be an art-house favorite, but too distinctive and captivating to call a failure.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.