A work of stunning images, staggering ambition and epic length, Cloud Atlas is an attempt to create nothing less than a "unified field" theory of science fiction.
If you're the Wachowskis (siblings Andy and Lana), who once set the movie world afire with The Matrix, you can be forgiven such pretentious overreaching. Then again, if you're the folks who gave us Speed Racer, maybe "Get over yourselves" should have come up as this elephantine instant cult film staggered into production.
Four Oscar winners and an impressive cohort of supporting players assay a string of interconnected roles scattered through time. In myriad makeups, they tell us a tale of tolerance and intolerance through the ages, of humanity's failure to further evolve and the fond hope that it will do just that -- eventually.
Tom Hanks plays assorted Brits, scientists, desk clerks and a post-civilization primitive "after the fall." Halle Berry runs the gamut from future warrior/explorer (complete with sci-fi jumpsuit), to 1970s San Francisco reporter exposing the dangers of nuclear power, to wizened Asian revolutionary, to 1930s German-Jewish wife of a famous composer.
In that last guise, with long, stringy red hair and pale body makeup (yes, a nude scene), Berry looks like mid-'90s Madonna. Hugh Grant, in the right old-age makeup, looks like James Caan gone to seed. He also out-barbarians Conan as a cannibal of the future. The casting and makeup tricks tend to turn the movie into a stunt.
Susan Sarandon can be a modern-day long-lost love of a publisher (Jim Broadbent) or a post-apocalyptic shaman. And Broadbent ranges from racist 19th century sea captain to addled old composer to the dotty publisher who has to stage a prison break from a British nursing home that draws on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for inspiration.
It's an overwhelming array of characters and settings, rendered in scattered quick-cut sketches (Tom Tykwer, who made his name with Run Lola Run, is the third credited director). Here is the 1849 South Pacific, where Jim Sturgess is a dying slave-trade lawyer rescuing a runaway, and being tended by a demented doctor/scientist (Hanks). There is Sturgess again, melodramatically rescuing a "fabricant" (clone) prophetess in the Fifth Element Neo Seoul of 2144. She is played by Doona Bae.
Hanks is an old man, telling a tale by campfire in an Esperanto-flavored language of the distant future, remembering his struggles as a younger tribesman haunted by a demon (Hugo Weaving) dressed like Keith David's New Orleans voodoo child of Disney's The Princess and the Frog.
That's handy, because David shows up as a slave, a general in the Neo Seoul rebellion against "Unanimity" and a nuclear plant security chief in the '70s.
And Weaving, the Wachowskis' evil muse, is a slave owner, a German orchestra conductor, an assassin and a version of Nurse Ratched from Cuckoo's Nest in the nursing-home escapade. And so on.
Characters avoid mentioning Star Trek by name, even if they describe "The Prime Directive." Broadbent's comical publisher has only to joke, "Soylent Green is PEOPLE" to set us up to see human bodies processed as food.
And at every point -- well, save for the Nell speak of the future -- we are poetically told that "My life extends far beyond the limitations of me," and "Our lives are not our own -- we are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness we birth our future."
Heavy. You wonder if novelist David Mitchell was aiming for a sci-fi The Hours, or to start his own Scientology.
Since we're seeing slaves flogged, 1930s gays persecuted (with a hint of the Holocaust about to hit Germany), corporate mass-murder plots, a future when cloned waitresses are disposed of if they get too smart and a later future when cannibalism is cool, we wonder how humanity will ever transcend its failings.
But a mythical piece of classical music composed by a suicidal gay musician (Ben Whishaw) in the '30s, the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," inspires. Or would if it were anything but banal movie-music filler.
Scattered amid the suffering, pondering, composing and pontificating are sex changes and sex scenes, foot pursuits and car chases, throat slashings, shootouts, a poisoning, and an attempted intellectual property theft. (Probably the last one was on Mitchell's mind as he wrote this.)
The settings, from past to distant future, are detailed enough to make James Cameron weep.
And the performers -- often almost completely obscured by prosthetics and makeup -- have a field day, tearing into the sorts of roles conventional movies would never offer them. Broadbent comes off the best, and Hanks has fun as a shaved-head Cockney gangster-turned-author who deals with unflattering reviews of his autobiography by hurling a critic off a modern-day London rooftop.
A warning shot at reviewers? Maybe. But don't be fooled by raves for this emotionally barren eye candy. It may have some lovely grace notes, talk of love and pack in a couple of cliffhangers involving love saving the day, but you won't feel for anybody.
Cloud Atlas may seem to give us a lot to chew on. But when you've run this many themes, plots and plot points, characters, and settings through your scriptural Cuisinart, what's going to come out can seem like predigested mush.