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With: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D'Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Robert Fyfe, Martin Wuttke
Written by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, based on a novel by David Mitchell
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
Running Time: 172
Date: 08/09/2012

Cloud Atlas (2012)

1 Star (out of 4)

Stench Connections

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

By any normal standards, Cloud Atlas is a very bad movie. With its six interwoven stories, the movie attempts to show how acts in one time period can resonate into another, though this theme doesn't come across as clearly as it does in, say, Jeff, Who Lives at Home.

Based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, this huge movie requires three directors: the German-born Tom Tykwer and the American siblings Andy Wachowski and Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski. These filmmakers were all at their best on small projects, and in fact did great work in the 1990s: Tykwer on Winter Sleepers and Run Lola Run, and the Wachowskis on Bound and The Matrix. But since then, Tywker has grown more passive, and with much longer films, and the Wachowskis have tried to adapt their comic book philosophies to increasingly ponderous films. Cloud Atlas appears to be the unholy culmination of all their worst instincts.

The six stories are as follows: In the 19th century, a notary (Jim Sturgess) receives mysterious treatments from a doctor (Tom Hanks) and befriends an escaped slave. In 1931, a young musician (Ben Whishaw) goes to work for a legendary composer (Jim Broadbent). In 1975, a journalist (Halle Berry) investigates a nuclear power company. In the present day, a publisher (Broadbent) escapes some gangsters by checking into a retirement home, but can't check back out. In the near future, a clone waitress (Doona Bae) learns that she has a greater destiny. And in the far future, a simple tribesman (Hanks) receives a visit from a technologically advanced woman (Berry).

If these six stories were disentangled and laid out separately, it would be clear that none of them has much depth or surprise. (Though, truth be told, I might have enjoyed an entire movie about Keith David as a 1970s-era tough guy badass.) The movie cuts corners, excising any moments of life, to rush the multitude of shallow characters through their story arcs. The stories are measured out in even, equal slabs, so that they can be edited on the same beats. This results in a general lack of rhythm. It becomes one long, monotonous thrum.

The pedestrian dialogue is even more trying, ranging from the occasional Big Speech, to the annoying "future-speak" of the sixth story, with its often-repeated use of "true-true" for the word "truth." If I heard that one more time, I was going to scream.

What's more, the almost fetishistic use of makeup to distinguish the characters from the actors that play them is highly distracting, and the guessing game of who's behind which fake appendage becomes more interesting than the story itself. (The movie's end credits provides the "answers" to these puzzles, just in case you make it that far.)

However, Cloud Atlas is not a normal movie; it's an "epic folly" (like David Lynch's Dune). Many audiences will find themselves swept away and perhaps even enchanted by the movie's mere efforts to be huge and impressive. Throughout Hollywood history, size and scale have often triumphed over content; this happened on an unprecedented scale three years ago with James Cameron's Avatar. For many, the magnifying and inflating of these empty stories may make them seem resonant. But they're still empty stories.
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