Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas."
It wouldn't be a stretch to call "Cloud Atlas" the most ambitious film adaptation of a novel ever attempted. But unfortunately for the directing team of the Wachowskis ("The Matrix") and Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"), ambition does not always translate into success. "Cloud Atlas" is a ravishing visual spectacle that's very easy on the eyes, but an offense to almost every other sensibility. The film premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday night.
Based on David Mitchell's challenging novel of the same name, "Cloud Atlas" is almost an impossible film to summarize without sounding long winded, so here goes. A century-spanning web of interconnected stories linked by common souls, the movie follows reincarnations of the same "soul" from the 1850s all the way to a distant post-apocalyptic future. Stepping into this multitude of roles is a strong ensemble cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, and James D'Arcy -- but not even the film's star-studded cast can save it from its own crushing weight.
The real problem with "Cloud Atlas" is that it has so much story to convey to the audience and only limited time to do so. Because of this, the resulting two hours and forty-four minutes can feel at once frantic and bloated. The amount of information thrown at viewers is absolutely overwhelming because they are given so little time to process it.
After the exposition-laden first hour, the directors do a good job of keeping the film moving at a good pace -- matching action and themes between the six stories in increasingly innovative ways -- but if you've missed anything along the way you'll be in for a confusing ride. They cut across the centuries at blinding speed and never linger for more than a few minutes with a given adventure. Perhaps this was out of fear that some of the individual stories would not be able to hold the attention of viewers for long or that some of the film's many problematic prosthetic makeup effects would not stand up to lengthy scrutiny. Whatever the reasons, audiences are brusquely shoved from tale to tale for the film's entire running time.
All this inter-cutting means that there are some very uncomfortable tonal shifts within "Cloud Atlas." One minute you're in modern England following a comedic escape attempt from a quiet nursing home, the next you're with a clone in a "Matrix"-meets-"Speed Racer" future witnessing the brutal slaughter of her kind, or watching a B-movie '70s thriller with car chases, or in a dank ship's cabin in the middle of the Pacific with a dying man. If you're at all invested with any of these characters -- and you will be just for having spent so much time with them, albeit in small doses -- it's an unpleasant emotional roller coaster to be taken on.
Still, there are some great performances to be found within the maze that is "Cloud Atlas," though some laughably bad line deliveries spoil many otherwise solid scenes. Tom Hanks turns in one of his best performances in years as the simple post-apocalyptic tribesman Zachry Bailey (although the strange dialect he and his people speak is at times difficult to decipher), and he is clearly having a lot of fun in all the other roles he gets to play. Disappointingly, Berry doesn't fair quite as well as Hanks, and seems to be playing a version of herself regardless of the era her character is inhabiting.
As for the rest, Broadbent, Weaving, Sturgess, Whishaw, and D'Arcy all demonstrate some considerable range, but the real standout performance of the film belongs to South Korean actress Doona Bae (in her first English-language role) as "fabricant" Sonmi-451, a clone who rebels against her creators.
But beyond the mixed acting bag there are things that simply don't ever work, such as the majority of the makeup effects in the movie. With the same actors playing multiple characters, the film employs prosthetic makeup to differentiate them in their respective eras. The fake noses and chins become a hilarious distraction even in the most sombre of scenes, giving many characters an unfortunate bird-like appearance at times. Even worse is the use of makeup to alter an actor's race, which painfully draws attention to the fact that it's an effect -- especially when you've just seen the same performer sans makeup in another scene seconds earlier.
In hewing so closely to the source material, the directors may have limited the film's appeal. The graphic violence, nudity, and offensive language justify the R-rating, and when combined with the lengthy run time, complicated themes and structure, the fact of the matter is that "Cloud Atlas" will probably be a hard sell for the average moviegoer. Is it a $100 million science fiction movie or a dreary period drama? A post-apocalyptic adventure or a contemporary English farce? "Cloud Atlas" is all of these things and more, and that is something that will likely confuse more than it will delight.
See also: TIFF 2012: Much ado about Joss Whedon
No one will ever say that "Cloud Atlas" wasn't a gallant attempt, though. There is a very good reason that many fans of Mitchell's novel considered it to be unfilmable, and the Wachowskis and Tykwer may have just proven them right. The film is at least an admirable failure however, one that will likely take on a cult status before too long. Usually movies don't work because somewhere along the line somebody got lazy, but the complete opposite is true of "Cloud Atlas." It tries too hard and reaches too far, but you've really got to appreciate that kind of moxie.