The three-hour film, based on David Mitchell’s seemingly unadaptable novel, is irrefutably ambitious, with a scope so epic that describing the plot in detail would take far more than my allotted 700 words. It spans continents, centuries and genres, linking six seemingly unrelated tales in surprising and poignant ways.
In a risky – but ultimately successful – move, the Wachowskis and Tykwer emphasize these connections by having almost every actor (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy) take on a different role in each story. They frequently portray characters of different ages, nationalities, races and even genders.
The idea sounds absurd in theory, and I’ll admit it’s sometimes jarring in practice. But it ultimately evokes a powerful sense of destiny, a feeling that our lives matter even if we sometimes feel insignificant.
“Cloud Atlas” cuts back and forth among each segment, trusting viewers to keep up as events play out. The filmmakers wisely use a quick pre-credits montage to immerse viewers in the storytelling technique. The first few minutes teach you how to watch the movie and it feels seamless once the narrative flow is established.
In the 1840s, a young lawyer (Sturgess) chronicles his transformational voyage across the Pacific with an eccentric doctor (Hanks). In the 1930s, a disinherited musician (Wishaw) writes to his lover (D’Arcy) about a chance to restore his reputation by working with a distinguished composer (Broadbent).
In 1970s San Francisco, a journalist (Berry) discovers the shady dealings of a nuclear power plant CEO (Grant) with help from two scientists (D’Arcy and Hanks). The film’s funniest story takes place in present-day England, where a bankrupt publisher (Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a nursing home while trying to hide out from some gangsters.
Several centuries from now, a clone (Bae) trapped in a dystopian version of Korea escapes her terrible existence and transforms into an adored revolutionary. Finally, viewers are introduced to a post-apocalyptic tribesman (Hanks) who must help a woman (Berry) from an advanced civilization search for a hidden relic. To retrieve it, they have to remain hidden from packs of terrifying cannibals (including a fierce and unrecognizable Grant).
Again, none of these stories seem like they would have natural connections. Yet the filmmakers’ innovative vision and the actors’ stellar work make the ties seem almost preordained. Each segment has its own unique visual style, making it easy to follow the narrative jumps. Alexander Berner’s brilliant editing helps in this area, thanks to some of the most creative choices I’ve seen since “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”
Everyone delivers strong performances, but Hanks is the clear standout. At this point, proclaiming him to be a great actor is about as controversial as saying ice cream is tasty. Still, it needs to be repeated. I don’t know how “Cloud Atlas” is going to be received by the academy, but he certainly deserves a Best Actor nomination.
There’s no “Da Vinci Code”-style coasting for Hanks here. He throws everything he’s got into his multiple roles, displaying a stunning level of commitment whether he’s playing a Cockney gangster or a kindhearted scientist. Critics like to throw around the term “everyman” when describing his acting style, a characteristic that pays off here.
I’m going to be honest: “Cloud Atlas” is a divisive film that will have just as many detractors as fans. It’s earnest, unrepentantly sappy in places and might cause extreme eye-rolling in cynical viewers. However, it’s also upfront about its intentions and isn’t afraid to think big. Yes, that means sometimes the Wachowskis and Tykwer don’t always hit the target they’re aiming for. But it’s certainly exhilarating to watch their attempt.
If, like me, you’re constantly complaining because there’s nothing new or creative playing in theaters, please go out and support “Cloud Atlas” this weekend. I’m not promising you’ll love it as much as I did. But you’ll be sending Hollywood an important message – that you like it when they take chances instead of making “Battleship 2.”
“Cloud Atlas” is rated R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.