“Cloud Atlas” has already stirred up as much critical dust as any movie in recent memory, and with good reason. Based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell, the film attempts to adapt the difficult text to the screen. In the process, it creates confusion for the viewer, though the process it uses is remarkable. Writers/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski have taken chances like this before, most notably in the “Matrix” trilogy. Like those popular films, this one bids fair to be a cult flick, replayed and rehashed over and over by its devotees.
A key of sorts does exist to help decipher the movie’s puzzling structure. About two hours into (or two-thirds the length of) the story, a young English composer named Robert Frobisher creates a piece entitled “the Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Similarly, the movie comprises six inter-related stories, taking place over a long span of years, from the 19th century to an indefinite, post-apocalyptic future. Different characters sharing some essential traits act out parallel stories, though it takes a while to catch onto the similarities.
Mitchell’s novel resembled a set of nesting dolls, the stories moving towards a center and back out; the film is more like a basket weave or, as suggested, a musical composition, each movement having its distinctive modes and moods, with certain recurrent themes and motifs. The dynamics of love and hate, trust and treachery, freedom and repression all play out against the varying historical backdrops, suggesting archetypal figures and patterns, more and less explicitly.
The headline names of actors cast in widely-differing parts—in terms of character type, age, even gender—include Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Hugo Weaving (the sneering chief bad guy, Agent Smith, in the “Matrix” series.) Space simply does not permit detailing their several roles, but Hanks, for example, plays a thieving doctor, a thuggish, murderous Irish novelist, a young nuclear physicist, and a pidgin-speaking goatherd, along with a couple of minor roles.
The Wachowskis’ co-director, Tom Tykwer, describes his actors as playing not characters but souls. I can only assume that they had a lot of fun doing so, and the audience can share some of that pleasure during the closing credits, where the principal actors and their multiple roles are revealed. Neither of the two big stars, Oscar winners Hanks and Berry, is particularly compelling in any of their multiple roles. My own favorites are Weaving as the guy we love to hate, age after age, and Broadbent, who performs several deliciously seriocomic turns, lending some much-needed humor to the proceedings.
The most likely Oscar nominees, however, operated behind the camera, especially in the editing, makeup, and production design areas. “Cloud Atlas” is a treat to watch, particularly if one is not overly concerned with following what might loosely be termed its narrative arc (or arcs). Teasing hints or clues scattered throughout—a book, a musical theme, a jewel, a heroic action—hold our interest, despite the obvious excesses that threaten it, such as a futuristic chase scene through New Seoul. The film also turns unnecessarily preachy at times, the point already having been made (and remade) through the plot(s) and characters.
Rated “R” for nudity, sexuality, some pretty graphic violence, drug use, and profanity, “Cloud Atlas” will definitely not be everyone’s cuppa tea. But it surely is an “event movie,” one that people will be discussing for some time. By the end, I was convinced that it was well worth the time and the price of a ticket, but I’m guessing that this might not even be the view of a strong popular minority.