I’m not sure where to start with this one, it is a little odd. I’ll try a synopsis.
Cloud Atlas tells a series of six different connected stories. There is one with Ben Withshaw as a gifted composer dreaming that his talent will lift him out of his unfortunate circumstances and another with Halle Berry as a crusading environmental journalist trying uncover corporate corruption. These two strands would have made good films in their own right but I think they are the only ones of which this is true.
All the other narratives are either too slight, too nonsensical or just too weird. There is a story with Jim Sturgess bring slowly poisoned by Tom Hanks on a boat, one to do with Jim Broadbent as a publisher in financial difficulty, one set in a very strange post apocalypse distant future and one involving cloned girls in a totalitarian 2144AD Korea.
The stories are connected through the spirits of the people involved which are shared across time through some kind of reincarnation. This is communicated on film by having them played by the same actors. So Halle Berry plays, among other things, the aforementioned journalist, a strange tribal woman and a kindly futuristic bourgeois. Tom Hanks is by turns a scientist, a hut dwelling future boy, a beardy ship’s doctor and in a scene that no doubt allowed the directors to deal with some of their feelings toward critics, a psychotic author,
Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving as the villains of the pieces both have a very strange set of characters to work with. I think it is fair to say that our Hugh is playing against type a little when he assays the role of a cannibalistic savage beast man (think Reaver from Serenity) while in one story Hugo appears as the hideous hallucination of a gnarly goblin man trying to prompt Tom Hanks into making poor life choices (think of the Polo mint monocled Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh).
Cloud Atlas aims to be a meditation on the enduring nature of love and the human spirit but what we get is a parade of Hollywood A-Listers in different levels of bizarre make up earnestly acting their way through stories seemingly rejected from the Twilight Zone. I don’t want to criticise the source novel as I can see that this could have been epic on the page, the fault is with the film makers. The Wachowski’s drove their Matrix Trilogy into the ground because they were too obsessed with their cinematic paintbox rather than the story and they have committed the same crime here.
Making up a well known actor to look different is always a problem because the audience has to adjust to the different features. In Looper for example, it takes a while to get used to the appearance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt because we know too well what he is supposed to look like. there is no way we are not going to be distracted by his big rubber nose. In Cloud Atlas you can’t get used to the prosthetics because you are never with the characters long enough. As a result you spend the whole film gazing at the screen with a bemused expression on your face.
Some of the facial alterations are so extreme though that I wouldn’t have got past them even if they’d have been on screen for the movie’s entire 10 hour running time (okay, it may only have been 3 hours but it felt like 10). Sometimes the actors are even playing different genders and nationalities and although this doesn’t descend to the levels of Dame Edna or Al Jolson it still doesn’t look right. No amount of make up can convincingly render Jim Sturgess as Korean or Doona Bae European. The reshaped eyes, built up brows, extended pouts and bald heads are relentlessly wheeled out and it is all just too distracting. As a result it is impossible to engage emotionally or care about anything that happens on the screen so after a while it all gets a little boring. Like Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, the style of the film totally eclipses the content.
Cloud Atlas may have worked if they had been brave enough not to play with the performers’ appearance so much. In Dead Ringers you always know which of the twin brothers you are looking at because of the subtleties of Jeremy Irons’ performance. The same is true of Freddie Highmore in The Spiderwick Chronicles, Nicholas Cage in Adaptation or even Christopher Reeve in Superman III. Tom Hanks is himself a great actor and there may well be tiny little alterations in his mannerisms as he plays different people but it is impossible to see them through the inches of silicone stuck to his face. I think in this case less could have been more.
There are great performances in Cloud Atlas, the visuals are often spectacular and some of the stories engaging but having the same actors turn up in different segments with a variety of beards, wigs and false teeth etc just makes the whole thing look like an episode of The Fast Show without the gags.
File this one under ‘great book, doesn’t work on film’.
Is this one for the kids?
Cloud Atlas is rated a 15 for scenes of extreme fake noses.