Friday, November 2, 2012
“Cloud Atlas” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) qualifies as a pretentious philosophical potboiler. The premise of this lavish $100 million epic is that mankind is connected across the millennium in our pursuit of happiness. “The Matrix” co-helmers Lana and Andy Wachowski along with “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer have bitten off more than they can contend with in their convoluted adaptation of bestselling British author David Mitchell’s award-winning novel. The filmmakers argue that nobody resides in a vacuum, and everybody exerts an integral influence in the evolution of mankind. Everything amounts to an eternal loop. A defiant replicant, Sonmit-451, summarizes their collective ideology: “Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime, and every kindness, we birth our future." Touting a laudable liberal agenda and boasting an incomparable cast, this schizophrenic science fiction saga serves up six insipid B-movie plots which intertwine as they unfold in a disorienting daze. Each episode concerns three chief characters and depicts them battling an oppressive system that engages in some form of prejudice. Two visual threads tie these stories together. First, some characters share a comet-shaped birthmark. Second, all appear in multiple roles. The Wachowskis told “The New Yorker” magazine that the actors represented migratory souls that evolve over time into a higher state of consciousness.
The first story takes place in 19th century Hawaii. An American attorney, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess of “One Day”), purchases Maori slaves for his racist father-in-law. During his sojourn on the island, Ewing suspects he is being poisoned by Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) who is treating him for parasitic worm. According to Dr. Goose, the worm is devouring Ewing’s brain. Actually, Dr. Goose covets the key around Ewing’s neck that will unlock a treasure chest. Meantime, Ewing has smuggled a slave, Autua (David Gyasi), aboard the sailing ship. The bond of friendship between them convinces the lawyer to become an abolitionist. During the 1930s, in Belgium, a destitute, young, gay musician, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), works as an amanuensis for a cantankerous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent of “Inkheart”), who is losing his memory. One of the books Frobisher reads at Ayrs’ mansion is Adam Ewing’s seafaring chronicle. Tempers flare up between Frobisher and Ayrs when the youth writes a symphony, the Cloud Atlas Sextet, which Ayrs claims as his own. Frobisher pulls a pistol on Ayrs, packs up his symphony, and goes into hiding. The action shifts to San Francisco in 1973. A crusading journalist, Luisa Rey (Hallie Berry), obtains a confidential report about a possible meltdown at a nuclear power plant. An assassin stalks not only Luisa but also Dr. Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) who acted as the whistle-blower. The next story occurs in contemporary London. An ill-fated book publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), goes into hiding after some thugs threaten him about royalty payments. Timothy’s brother Denholme (Hugh Grant) arranges sanctuary for him. Timothy discovers too late that Denholme has committed him to a retirement home that he cannot leave. In the next story, set in Neo Seoul in 2144, a genetically-engineered female fabricant, Sonmi~451 (Donna Bae of “The Host”), who toils in a fast-food restaurant, participates in a revolution against an Orwellian corporatocracy. The final story takes place after a planetary apocalypse in 2346. Meronym (Hallie Berry), a survivor of a technologically-advanced society, persuades a superstitious goat herder Zachry (Tom Hanks) to guide her up a treacherous mountain to an outpost named Cloud Atlas, so she can transmit a message to humans who have abandoned Earth and reside on distant planets. Zachry and Meronym speak in a Pidgin English dialect that audiences may find difficult to decipher.
The Wachowskis directed the Ewing chronicle and the two sci-fi sagas, while Tykwer helmed the episodes about the composer, the journalist and the publisher. They cross-cut erratically between these yarns so all six end up being one single story. One minute you’re up to your neck in comedy, while the next minute you’re plunged into a tragedy. The gimmick of casting actors in various roles doesn’t always succeed. Indeed, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Hugh Grant aren’t convincing as Asian characters. Ultimately, some plots emerge as more entertaining. The slapstick Timothy Cavendish plot surpasses the serious, straightforward “Blade Runner” plot about an insurrection in futuristic Korea. Part of the problem with “Cloud Atlas” is that none of the characters is remotely charismatic, and the plots are pretty lackluster, particularly Adam Ewing’s adventures. Neither the Wachoswkis nor Tykwer develop a palatable sense of either tension or suspense in these stories. Sadly, despite its lofty ambitions, this derivative 163-minute melodramatic marathon suffers because nothing about it constitutes a revelation.