About 45 minutes into the nearly three-hour Cloud Atlas screening I attended, some dude blew out his lips, sounding not unlike a bridled horse after piloting a carriage around Disneyland for a half-day.
Others stood up, shook their heads and walked out solemnly with their popcorn corn tubs for the first of many refills.
Cloud Atlas is one mightily ambitious film. Three directors are at the helm; the cast is high-profile, with most playing multiple roles; and there are interconnecting story arcs spanning centuries.
All things considered, it’s remarkable how cohesive the film is. While different directors handled different stories, the film doesn’t feel as if different directors were handling the shots. It has a nice, smooth, unified vision. It's not smooth enough to please everybody, judging by the mass exodus from the theater, but smooth enough to impress the likes of me.
The directors are the Wachowski siblings (Andy and Lana of The Matrix movies) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). They handled different parts of the movie with their own crews, while sharing the cast members, who play a multitude of different characters that required them to often wear heavy prosthetic makeup.
The cast includes Tom Hanks, who gets to play both virtuous and murderous men, often changing accents, wigs and teeth. Hanks looks like he’s having the time of his life, and he helps to propel the film, even when it threatens to go off the rails.
Also on hand is Halle Berry, who has been getting some stinker roles lately. This is her best film in years, especially during a 1970s plotline that has her playing a reporter investigating a nuclear power plant scheme. Hugh Grant, having a fun year with his great voiceover work in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, gets to play a host of disgusting people, as does Wachowski regular Hugo Weaving.
The movie’s true intentions don’t start kicking in until halfway through its running time, making the first half a bit of a maze. My advice is to be patient, because, narrative-wise, it all comes together quite wonderfully in the end.
I’m sure the makeup folks were working overtime, and some of their work is quite dandy. That said, much of that makeup is pretty awful. Susan Sarandon has a fake nose at one point that’s so distracting, it’s hard to follow what’s happening in the scene. I found myself staring at her nose and missing dialogue. I did like the transformation of Hugo Weaving into a female nurse as mean as Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But for every makeup success, there seems to be three failures. The film was budgeted at a little more than $100 million, which is not a lot of money by Hollywood-blockbuster-wannabe standards. So, yeah, another $25 million for fake nose and teeth research might’ve made the film look less like a goofy costume pageant and more realistic.
While there isn’t one story in Cloud Atlas that’s so amazingly good it would stand on its own, the feat of tying them all together is impressive. For instance, there are two slavery stories, one involving Jim Sturgess as a slave trader in the past, and another involving Sturgess as an Asian slave revolutionary in the distant future.
The film, like the novel by David Mitchell, suggests that acts of kindness and hatred at any moment can ripple through time and affect the future. It also suggests that there’s some sort of reincarnation at play, with people meeting each other again and again in different lives. And finally, it also suggests that no matter how good looking we are, we are doomed to have a really bad nose or fake looking wig somewhere down the line.
I liked the idea that the Hanks persona could be a heroic man in the ’70s and a brutish killer in the present day. In that respect, Cloud Atlas certainly lacks in predictability.
In the end, the film is more a magnificent curio than magnificent entertainment. It will certainly challenge audiences ill prepared for its length and numerous swirling stories.
Cloud Atlas is now playing at theaters across the valley.