In Hollywood, filmmakers have long mistaken spectacle and eccentricity for profundity. You can trace this tendency back to its first lunatic production, D.W. Griffith’s monumental “Intolerance” (1916).
That silent film remains one of my favorite impossible movies, sufficiently ahead of its time for audiences of the day to reject it but even today the grandiosity of the romanticism and sheer fatuity of some of the ideas make many sections ring false.
Even so, it’s a smarter film than “Cloud Atlas.”
This one comes from American filmmakers Lana and Andy Washowski, who dragged the poor German director, Tom Tykwer, into their folly. (Perhaps he was brought in owing to the playful structure in his “Run Lola Run.”)
The film is elephantine and pretentious without being in the least bit significant. It deals with ideas such a reincarnation, the perpetual battle between good and evil and the struggle to achieve freedom without moving beyond platitudes.
The film derives from a 2004 novel by David Mitchell where stories spanning six time periods from past to future interrupt themselves, the point being that it’s all the same story.
I have not read this book nor does the film version make me want to. In fact, the film’s primary audience seems to be those who have read and enjoyed the cult novel, which is bad news for the film’s investors including its American distributor, Warner Bros.
The just-under three-hour film with a price tag reportedly north of $100 million will need a broader audience than that.
Unlike Griffith’s folly, which also cut back and forth among historical time frames, “Cloud Atlas” makes little attempt to bring those unfamiliar with the novel into the scheme of the fractured tales.
Throw in the fact that a number of well-known actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant among them — play characters in thick makeup including white-face and various guises including drag in all six episodes, and you wonder how seriously even the makers are taking any of this.
This is little more than gimmickry — or perhaps an all-out bid to win that makeup Oscar. It harkens back to Mike Todd’s celebrity casting in “Around the World in 80 Days” and the celebrity disguises in John Huston’s “The List of Adrian Messenger.”
The filmmaking trio wrote the adaptation but divided directing chores. For the record, stories taking place 1849, 2144 and 2321 belong to Team Wachowski while Tykwer oversaw those segments in 1936, 1973 and 2012.
This separation of powers creates no style or tonal shifts, however. The same heavy hand is evident throughout.
Each segment not only imagines a fight between forces of oppressions and freedom in different eras but also in different movie genres.
In chronology, something the film itself never bothers with, the first episode occurs in the 1849 South Pacific. During a voyage back to the West Coast, a San Francisco attorney (Sturgess) discovers that a slave (David Gyasi) has stowed away in his cabin.
The interaction between him and his secret sharer (Conrad is the influence here) and their mutual rescue of one another from villainous hands alter forever the attorney’s attitude about slavery.
In 1936 Scotland a young, disinherited composer (Whishaw) — homosexuality being his dark secret — latches on to an aging renowned composer (Broadbent) to assist him in converting the sounds still in his head into notes on sheet music.
Meanwhile under the man’s unwitting influence, he secretly composes his masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which the old man tries to steal. The crime melodrama that ensues feels contrived and unsatisfactorily resolved.
San Francisco 1973 finds the only character who lives long enough to appear in two episodes, the composer’s lover (D’Arcy), now an aging physicist, has secret papers about a potential nuclear plant disaster. Coincidently he gets trapped in an elevator with a crusading reporter (Berry).
A thriller ensues with an industrial heavyweight (Grant) sending assassins (including Weaving who’s a villain in every incarnation) to get the reporter and her protector (David). (The inspirations here are all those ’70s era Bay Area thrillers including “Bullitt,” “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs!” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”)
Present-day Scotland is the scene of slapstick comedy with Broadbent again starring as a small-time publisher suckered into a tyrannical old-age home by his vengeful brother (an unrecognizable Grant). He then organizes a complicated escape with fellow “prisoners.”
Oh yes, and Weaving appears as Nurse Noakes (a nod to Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”).
Neo Seoul 2144 finds most of old Seoul underwater — take that you climate-change deniers — and a totalitarian future where “fabricants” rebel against their masters.
A young female (Doona Bae) becomes a leader for independence with the help of a sister fabricant (Chinese actress Xun Zhou in her first Western film) and a revolutionary (Sturgess again).
(The influences here are “Blade Runner” — blatantly so — with a touch of “The Terminator.”)
The final episode, including a wrap-around narration by Hanks as a Homeric teller of tales in a society plunged back into primitivism, takes place in Hawaii in the mid-2300s.
This is the most forgettable and misbegotten of the episodes as the filmmakers, taking their cue apparently from the novel, force actors to speak in a pidgin English that requires subtitles yet none are provided.
Hanks and Berry, who flirt in past lives, now get real face time as a tribesman and an “off-lander” with scientific sophistication. But their adventure is lost in murkiness and the filmmakers’ over-fondness for visual effects.
The acting throughout is iffy at best. The extravagant costumes and makeup — tattoos, false noses and age and ethnic cleansing — seemingly bring out their worst tendencies. Some such as Sarandon, Whishaw and Bae do decent jobs with the roles that aren’t Halloween disguises.
Others such as Hanks, Grant and Weaving look like they’re auditioning for that old 19th-century stage melodrama, “The Drunkard.” The standout performances belong Broadbent. Perhaps because he’s taking the movie’s cornball notions none too seriously.
The film is all clutter with little clarity. The emphasis on a birthmark that repeats itself from episode to episode and the migration of souls via continuing players help little. If anything these things distract.
The bloated production with its over obvious connecting tissue can be seen, as indeed can much of the Wachowskis‘ work, as a product of the Internet age.
Visual information clutters the screen, fighting to attract viewer attention, while shifts in scenery (and actors’ costumes) reflect a need to push on to the next link, site or page with minimal comprehension.
Glibness dominates the six stories, none of which would probably warrant a movie by itself. The metaphysics are troubling, poorly thought out and superficial. Nothing pulls the movie together; it remains the sum of its disparate parts.
Opens: October 26, 2012 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Cloud Atlas/X Films Creative Pool/Anarchos Production in association with A Company and ARD Degeto
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Robert Fyfe, Martin Wuttke, Robin Morrisey, Brody Lee
Directors/screenwriters: Lana Wachowski, Andy Washowski, Tom Tykwer
Based on the novel by: David Mitchell
Producers: Grant Hill, Stefan Arndt, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
Executive producers: Philip Lee, Uwe Schott, Wilson Qui
Directors of photography: John Toll, Frank Griebe
Production designers: Uli Hanisch, Hugh Bateup
Music: Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil
Senior visual effect supervisor: Dan Glass
Visual effects supervisor: Stephane Ceretti
Costume designers: Kym Barrett, Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Editor: Alexander Berber
R rating, 171 minutes