Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon in Cloud Atlas. (Warner Bros.)
"Impressed" is the word that best describes my feeling toward the Wachowskis' dream project Cloud Atlas.
Not "emotionally moved," or even exceptionally "entertained." Cloud Atlas is like seeing the unveiling of a spectacular modernist building which may not appeal esthetically, but which represents accomplishment on a magnitude that can't be denied.
The ostensibly unfilmable film is taken from David Mitchell's novel about a single soul that experiences six different life stories from a 19th Century sea-faring ordeal to a post-Apocalyptic fight for survival. On the simplest level, six different, interspersed, mini-movies means you're likely to become invested in at least one.
But it's the crazily daring approach that makes Cloud Atlas unique. Rather than clearly make the tales the story of the same character, they've created an impressionistic thread by having a formidable cast play different genders and races at different times.
Sometimes, the success of that gender/race-bending surprises. One reason to sit through at least part of the credits is the "unveiling" of which actors played which roles. The filmic equivalent of a stage bow, it elicited gasps and laughter at the screening I attended. Susan Sarandon as an Indian businessman roused particular hubbub.
Other oddball casting clearly tests the limits of modern makeup. The story Sonmi-451 is set in a dystopian near-future Korea, in which clones called "fabricants" do all the service work (opening with the "treason" hearing of a soon-to-be-executed fast-food worker played by Doona Bae). That many of the "Koreans" are played by the likes of Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving serves to prove that it's nearly impossible for white people to play Asians without looking like either Romulans or Vulcans.
(Offsetting political correctness concerns, Bae also plays, to reasonable effect, a 19th Century Englishwoman, the wife of Sturgess's character in the ocean voyage tale).
The A-list Tom Hanks gets the choicest roles. Ironically, the career good-guy is most effective in the relatively minor villain roles he's assigned (he's terrific, but only on the screen for a minute, as a thuggish crime novelist who commits an unforgettable act of brutality at a party in The Ghastly Ordeal Of Timothy Cavendish).
The Wachowskis (teamed with German director Tom Tykwer) are in their wheelhouse in the stories that play off their fascination with the individual crushed by the machine, a la The Matrix and V For Vendetta. These would be the Orwellian (and noisily pyrotechnic) Sonmi-451 and the Luisa Rey Mystery (a '70s Watergate-ish tale with Halle Berry as a crusading journalist and Hanks as a whistle-blowing scientist). The post-apocalyptic story, with Hanks speaking pidgin English as a luckless villager wearing itchy-looking rags, and a glowing Berry as an emissary of the surviving techno-world, is also recognizably "Wachowskian."
Of the others, all period pieces, Timothy Cavendish is the most entertaining, a dark comedy about a publishing agent (Jim Broadbent) who ends up shanghaied into a mental hospital. Just the sight of the aforementioned Weaving as a rather large Nurse Ratched figure is to laugh.
The result isn't as profound as the filmmakers intend. But nearly three hours of audaciousness can hold your attention on chutzpah alone.
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