Arts and Culture

'Cloud Atlas'

A film with three directors, six parallel plots, and countless versions of Tom Hanks. Can it be done?

By Steve Burgess 26 Oct 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Read his previous articles here.

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Tom Hanks: Just one is never enough.

If you're planning to see Cloud Atlas, be forewarned. You will need enough popcorn to last several lifetimes. Six of them to be precise, stuffed into a running time of about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Don't eat too fast -- you might find it all coming back on you.

Cloud Atlas is big -- big, I tell you! So big it has three directors: Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and the former Wachowski brothers, now refurbished as the Wachowski siblings (Matrix et al). Based on the novel by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas attempts to tell six different stories, all occurring in different eras, and all connected. Apparently. The movie stars Jim Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, James D'Arcy, and features Tom Hanks as Meryl Streep, putting on accents that span the ages of Man.

This is Cloud Atlas' central device -- different eras, different characters, same actors. Thus we are treated to a festival of prosthetics and make-up, a film whose credits contain entries like "Jim Broadbent -- Korean musician," where Korean actress Bae plays a red-haired, freckled English lass named Tess, and poor Hugo Weaving gets up in drag to play a Nurse Ratched-type character named Nurse Nokes. And there's Hanks in all manner of get-ups and old-timey accents. I didn't stick around for the credits (urgent date with the men's room) but I'd be curious to know whether the gaffer and the key grip were played by the best boy.

Directionless 'Atlas'

Detailing all the plots of Cloud Atlas would take up more bandwidth than the poor Tyee can afford. But they skip from 1849 to 1936, 1973, 2012, and 2144. The stories range from a slave's connection to a young English toff, a young man's alliance with a famous composer, a scheme involving a nuclear plant, a publisher committed to a nasty old folk's home by his scheming brother, a rebellious replicant in a future Seoul, and a primitive civilization in the far future. Cloud Atlas cross-cuts between all these stories, slowly at first and with increasing rapidity as events develop. There's no doubt that the film gets points for ambition. But far too often it also makes you cringe.

My vote for the cringiest part: the pidgin English humans will speak in that distant, primitive future. Language has evolved, you see. Instead of "I'm not afraid," a character says: "I'm not scaredsome." Instead of "It reminds me of...," you get "It minders me of..." And my favourite: In place of "Do you want to hear the truth?" Halle Berry says: "You want the true-true?" Somewhere A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick are spinning in their graves like twin jet engines.

And all that multiple casting. Fun for the actors no doubt, but onscreen it plays like an increasingly tiresome gimmick. So many prosthetics, so many iterations of Hugo Weaving villains. (Although the cinematic universes of the Wachowskis are many, apparently Hugo Weaving is an asshole in all of them.) Keeping plot details straight will only be possible on DVD, if then. Late in the film a signed contract is thrown onto a fire -- I defy anyone to tell me what it pertained to.

"Everything is connected," the movie's tag line reads. But how, exactly? The most obvious message seems to be that every generation gets its Tom Hanks. Beyond that the parallels aren't always obvious. In one scene a table leg is supported by a book -- a book written by a character in an earlier story. Wow, heavy. I guess.

Six parallel stories -- that's a lot of chainsaws to juggle. I don't know that any movie could really pull it off. Cloud Atlas does its best and as the stories progress the tension actually does begin to rise. But that just leads to more frustration as you wish they would drop the narratives you care less about and focus on the ones you're more engaged in. Then again, it's hard to escape the notion that paring back the number of plots would only make their individual weaknesses more obvious. Would any one or two of these stories make for a good movie?

Cloud Atlas is like a giant tub of Safeway Neapolitan ice cream. It doesn't offer much quality. But there is variety. And quantity. And many, many flavours of Tom Hanks.  [Tyee]

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