A Hollow Sextet

There are two methods of evaluating “Cloud Atlas,” the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s much-loved 2004 novel. One method is to consider whether the movie rose to the (admittedly daunting) challenge of visually translating a text many have called — due to its six stories-within-stories — “un-filmable.” The other is to judge the movie as a stand-alone science fiction epic about the universality of human experience across time and space. Going by the first set of parameters, “Cloud Atlas” managed to strip the novel of its most poignant and thought-provoking moments, turning one storyline about politics and spectacle into an Asian, video game version of “I, Robot.” Instead of important context, it offered shots of characters in simultaneous storylines having sex (because, you see, we’re all connected) and a surreal game of “Wait, was that Hugh Grant playing the tattooed barbarian? Was that Halle Berry playing a Jewish socialite? And was that the sky bridge in the book?” (Yes, yes and no).

Using the second set of parameters, the movie is even worse. Directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) have created a bloated, three-hour mess with so many characters, so little character development and such fraught chronology that it is difficult enough to keep up with the storylines, much less care whether Jim Sturgess’ Korean incarnation is alive.

The critically acclaimed novel features six plotlines, including the story of a composer (Ben Whishaw) in 1930s Cambridge, a clone (Doona Bae) in futuristic Korea, an 1850s explorer (Sturgess) on a ship sailing the Pacific, a journalist (Halle Berry) investigating a nuclear power plant and a tribesman (Tom Hanks) living in a post-apocalyptic world. “Cloud Atlas,” the book, is structured like a set of Russian nesting dolls, with each story briefly referenced in the story directly after it, thus giving the reader enough time to become invested in the story before moving on. “Cloud Atlas,” the movie, is structured like a schizophrenic nightmare.

The directors, lost in their eagerness to emphasize the “eternal return” angle, instead grouped the stories based on plot “themes” (hence the simultaneous sex scenes), creating a constant back-and-forth that dilutes emotional impact. While they do a good job of cross-referencing storylines and emphasizing recurring motifs (a comet-shaped birthmark, a blue stone), the frantic switch between six stories robs the viewer of the time to fully digest the implications (or wholly forgettable dialogue) of any one of them.

This same desire to emphasize the theme of history repeating led to the even more terrible idea of having the main actors plays multiple characters across multiple storylines. We have (among so many others) Halle Berry and South Korean actress Doona Bae playing Caucasians, Hugo Weaving as a woman, Hugh Grant as a really old man and, worst of all, Sturgess and Weaving combined with truly horrific CGI to play Koreans. The racial implications of yellow face aside, the repetition of just-barely-recognizable-under-the-makeup actors creates confusion instead of cohesion, especially when Tom Hanks is involved.

The movie’s redeeming points include the Timothy Cavendish plot, which has a pitch-perfect Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn from “Harry Potter”) playing a vanity press publisher in an appropriately slapstick storyline about plotting escape from a retirement home. And Whishaw (“Skyfall”), all wide eyes and tender glances, delivers a moving performance as the 1930s composer torn between ego and work; this is a refreshing change from Bae’s whispery platitudes and Berry’s many self-knowing smiles.

“Cloud Atlas” has plenty of beautifully filmed nature scenes with crashing waves and mountain peaks, even if the directors didn’t take advantage of the varying time periods to strongly differentiate the visual style. Ultimately, fans of the novel who watch the film are likely to be annoyed. Fans of science fiction movies who watch the film are likely to be annoyed, and also confused. (C-)

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