A work of stunning images, staggering ambition and epic length, “Cloud Atlas” is an attempt to create nothing less than a “unified field” theory of science fiction.
If you’re the Wachowskis, who once set the movie world afire with “The Matrix,” you can be forgiven such pretentious overreaching.
In “Cloud Atlas,” four Oscar winners and an impressive cohort of supporting players assay a string of inter-connected roles scattered through time. Wearing myriad makeups, they tell us a tale of tolerance and intolerance through the ages, of humanity’s failure to further evolve, and the fond hope that it will do just that — eventually.
Tom Hanks plays assorted Brits, scientists, desk clerks and a post-civilization primitive “after the fall.” Halle Berry runs the gamut from future warrior explorer to 1970s San Francisco reporter exposing the dangers of nuclear power, to wizened Asian revolutionary to 1930s German-Jewish wife of a famous composer.
In that last guise, with long, stringy red hair and pale body makeup (yes, a nude scene), Berry looks like mid-’90s Madonna. Hugh Grant, in the right old-age makeup, looks just like James Caan gone to seed. He also out-barbarians Conan as a cannibal of the future. The casting and makeup tricks tend to turn the movie into a stunt.
Susan Sarandon can be a modern-day long-lost love of a publisher (Jim Broadbent) or a post-apocalyptic shaman. And Broadbent ranges from racist 19th-century sea captain to addled old composer to the dotty publisher who has to stage a prison break from a British nursing home.
It’s an overwhelming array of characters and settings, rendered in scattered quick-cut sketches. Here is the 1849 South Pacific, where Jim Sturgess is a dying slave-trade lawyer rescuing a runaway, and being tended by a demented doctor-scientist (Hanks). There is Sturgess again, melodramatically rescuing a “fabricant” (clone) prophetess in the “Fifth Element” Neo Seoul of 2144. She is played by Doona Bae.
Hanks is an old man, telling a tale by campfire in an Esperanto-flavored language of the distant future, remembering his struggles as a younger tribesman haunted by a demon (Hugo Weaving).
And Weaving, the Wachowskis’ evil muse, is a slave owner, a German orchestra conductor, an assassin and a version of Nurse Ratched from “Cuckoo’s Nest” in the nursing-home escapade. And so on.
And, over and over, we are poetically told that “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me,” and “Our lives are not our own, we are bound to others — past and present. And by each crime and every kindness we birth our future.”
Heavy. You wonder if novelist David Mitchell was aiming for a sci-fi “The Hours,” or to start his own Scientology.
Seeing slaves flogged, 1930s gays persecuted, corporate mass murder plots, a future when cloned waitresses are disposed of if they get too smart, and a later future when cannibalism is cool, one wonders how humanity will ever transcend its failings.
This is emotionally barren eye candy. It may have some lovely grace notes, may talk of love, pack in a couple of cliffhangers involving love saving the day, but you won’t feel for anybody.
And when you’ve run this many themes, plots and plot points, characters and settings through your scriptural Cuisinart, what’s going to come out can seem like predigested mush.