Film review: CLOUD ATLAS, from Built For Speed

Ambitious, epic, infuriating, silly and remarkable all in one, Cloud Atlas is the brave attempt by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer to a adapt David Mitchell’s brain-boggling novel to the big screen.

Like Slaughterhouse Five this film jumps back and forth in time from one unusual scenario to another. We go from Jim Sturgess as a morally and physically tortured young man aboard a slave trading ship in the 1800’s to composer Ben Wishaw’s romantic relationship with James D’arcy in the 1930’s London to Halle Berry as an investigative reporter exposing an energy industry conspiracy in 1973, to Jim Broadbent as an elderly nursing home escapee in the present day to a dystopian city of the future where identical looking women are slaves to a sinister corporation.  Amazingly, that’s only scratching the surface of this vast, multi-layered and multi-charactered story.  Throughout each scenario the same actors: Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and others pop up as different characters.

At first it all seems maddeningly obtuse and pretentious but links and parallels between the disparate worlds begin to appear as events seemingly resonate through history.  The bizarre story structure begins to make at least some sense as it matches the swirling rhythms of Ben Wishaw’s Cloud Atlas symphony that reappears throughout the film.

Cloud Atlas explores a variety of themes including fate, karma, conformity, love, freedom, slavery and the nature of story-telling itself.  Unfortunately, amid the film’s welter of images and vast, shifting time frames, these themes lose much of their impact.  Similarly, despite numerous romances and personal tragedies, the film always keeps us at an emotional distance and makes it difficult to connect with any of the characters or scenarios.

As with the TV show Lost we spend what seems like an eternity waiting for the bizarre story threads to coalesce into a something coherent and revelatory but like Lost, Cloud Atlas doesn’t deliver the desired pay-off.

Maddening as this fragmented film is overall, the individual scenarios are often stunning. The grim futuristic city easily tops the world of the matrix, the recreation of the 1970’s is terrific and the use of vast landscapes and intricate CGI effects is astonishing.   Cloud Atlas is also quite funny particularly when Jim Broadbent is running around in a flap. The individual segments would probably have made interesting films on their own but chopped up and piled into one movie they seem like wasted opportunities.

Cloud Atlas has attracted considerable controversy as it features white actors digitally and prosthetically altered to look Asian.  Not only is this politically cringe worthy but it often looks silly particularly when we see the asianised Hugo Weaving who looks like his face is melting.  The film also contains appalling old man make-up, just look at Hugh Grant as Jim Broadbent’s brother.

Cloud Atlas is visually and sonically stunning, structurally intriguing but emotionally underwhelming. It’s also about half an hour too long.  Still, as a technical achievement it definitely deserves to be seen.

Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: MA

Director(s): Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer

Release date: 28th Feb 2013

Running time: 172 mins.


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