We’ve fallen a little behind on recent releases, finally reviewing the new Bond last week. This week, we consider this season’s most ambitious release, an adaptation of a complex novel into history’s most expensive independent film.

Title: Cloud Atlas

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski.

Written by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski, from the novel by David Mitchell.

Cast

Tom Hanks as Dr. Henry Goose, Hotel Manager, Isaac Saches, Dermot Hoggins, Actor playing Timothy Cavendish, Zachry.

Halle Barry as Luisa Rey, Native Woman, Jocasta Ayrs, Party Guest, Ovid, Meronym.

Jim Broadbent as Timothy Cavendish, Captain Molyneux, Vyvyan Ayrs, Musician, Prescient.

Hugo Weaving as Haskell Moore, Tadeusz Kesselring, Bill Smoke, Nurse Noakes, Boardman Mephi, Old Georgie.

Jim Sturgess as Adam Ewing, Hotel Guest, Megan’s Dad, Highlander, Hae-Joo Chang, Adam, Zachry’s Brother-in-Law.

Doona Bae as various Sonmi, Tilda, Megan’s Mother.

Susan Sarandon as Madame Horrox, Ursula, Yusouf Suleiman, Abbess.

Hugh Grant as Rev. Giles Horrox, Hotel Heavy, Lloyd Hooks, Denholme Cavendish, Seer Rhee, Kona Chief.

Ben Whishaw as Robert Frobisher, Cabin Boy, Clerk, Georgette, Tribesman.

Keith David as Kupaka, Joe Napier, An-kor Apis, Prescient.

James D’Arcy as Rufus Sixsmith, Nurse James, Archivist.

David Gyasi as Autua, Lester Rey, Duphsyte.

Xun Zhou as Talbot, Hotel Manager, Yoona, Rose.

Robin Morrissey as Young Timothy Cavendish.

Amanda Walker as Veronica Costello.

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Premise:

An American lawyer in the 1840s encounters a Maori stowaway on the high seas.

In 1936, a young auteur creates a work of startling beauty while employed by a famous composer.

Meanwhile, in 1973, a hip Californian reporter finds herself in danger, baby, when she stumbles onto a conspiracy, thanks to a tip from a character who appears (much younger) in the 1936 plot.

A British publisher falls into danger and dark comedy in present-day UK after a criminal author murders a critic, and his associates come looking for their share of the money generated by the ensuing publicity.

A genetically-engineered fabricant working in twenty-second-century Korea becomes involved with a revolution.

On post-apocalyptic Hawaii, a primitive tribesman and a member of a technologically advanced society join forces and head on a quest to save humanity.

The prologue and epilogue (of course) take place on an alien world.

As should be perfectly obvious from the descriptions, all of these stories connect in various ways.

High Points:

1. Editing. Seriously, this film shows how editing can be an art form. In its construction, the film achieves the epic status to which the entire enterprise aspires.

The novel cuts its stories in half. Readers move towards the center and then read back out through the ends of each tale. The movie shuffles those stories, moving effortlessly from one to another, using thematic moments, plot parallels, and visual similarities to create the sense of an artistic whole. That Cloud Atlas doesn’t collapse into chaos amounts to a minor cinematic miracle.

2. The 2012 segment– “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”—works well to a large degree because its main character has not been idealized. We nevertheless come around to his side, in an absurd and entertaining tale.

Low Points:

1. The story grounds each segment in a particular genre. Many have commented on how this worked as a strength in the novel, with its distinct literary genres and voices. In the movie, with its visual story-telling and condensed narratives, the genre elements become, in places, a liability. The stories either needed to go further into movie genre territory (the 1973 segment could have been full-out 70s action/blaxploitation/thriller, for example), or made each section even more similar, with shared rules of reality. As it stands, each segment has at least one narrative flaw stemming from its genre. These include the conspiracy plot in 1973, which goes entirely over the top (The newspaper informs us that an executive has been implicated in a scandal. A scandal? A conspiracy on behalf of big oil that can blow up an entire plane to kill one person and keep a nuclear plant’s imminent failure under wraps amounts to a tad more than a “scandal”). The future dystopic government, meanwhile, fails to use surveillance where it would be both helpful and likely, and (of course) they enforce the law with masked officers who can’t hit the broad side of a skyscraper.

2. Cloud Atlas wants to show the connections among all people, and encourages us to see the world through the eyes of the other (whomever the other might be to each of us). To that end, the casting of actors in multiple roles that cross age, sex, and race makes a kind of sense. And when this make-up and acting works, it works well. When it fails, it fails spectacularly.

Some Asian actors have complained that the principal Asian males get played by Caucasians. They have a point: Hollywood cinema currently offer few roles for Asian men, in particular, and the ugly, racist history of Yellowface remains a too-recent memory. And yes, I understand the thematic reasons in this film, and I realize that the futuristic Korea is not racially homogenous—those characters aren’t necessarily Korean, in the sense that we use the word in 2012 (though the Asian females are played by Asian actresses). However, there can be little dispute that the Caucasian-to-Asian make-up is pretty bad.

Attempts to turn the Asian actresses into Caucasian women doesn’t fare much better. And Hugo Weaving as the female Nurse Noakes only passes muster because that story is a dark comedy. He looks like the recipient of the worse sex-reassignment surgery in history.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Although the film has been adapted from an existing novel, I give it three points for sheer audacity. Of course this is an independent film! Do you imagine any studio, given the current state of industry thinking, would have touched this production with an eleven-foot pole? (Once the film found funding, Warner Brothers signed on for distribution).

However, I cannot give it more than those points. The individual stories, heavily indebted to specific genres, give us little that’s actually original. What can work as pastiche in print looks like a collection o’ tropes onscreen.

The conclusion, meanwhile, hits us over the head with a message that may be sincere, but perhaps lacks the depth and originality to which the film clearly aspires.

Effects: 6/6 The film is so visually beautiful, I won’t complain about the two moons in the alien sky showing different phases.

Production: 5/6 Alas, either Effects or Production had to lose one point. When the make-up works, it works well. When it fails, well, I suppose one must expect that this film would also be spectacular in its failures.

Acting: 5/6 I will give the actors full credit for the incredible range of performances, and the fact that they’re often unrecognizable from segment to segment. A cast this vast attempting so many things at once, however, can be expected to be somewhat uneven.

Story: 4/6 The stories generate interest, but they’re predictable. More can be found under both High and Low Points.

Emotional Response: 4/6 I generally enjoyed this often brilliant, frequently flawed film, but I cannot say it held me with the same intensity with which it initially had me.

Overall: 4/6. In attempting to accomplish so much, the film often shortchanges its individual narratives. Nevertheless, you won’t be seeing anything else quite like it this season, and, visually, it certainly merits the big-screen experience.

I suspect Could Atlas would have worked far better as the most bizarre single-season series in history.

In total, Cloud Atlas receives 31/42.

A Few Conundrums and Easter Eggs

  • In addition to the larger connections, pieces of one story turn it up in odd ways in others. A copy of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing appears, for example, in the 1930s plot.
  • One of Tom Hanks’ lesser roles in this movie is the actor who plays Timothy Cavendish in The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, brief clips of which appear in another segment. Is Hanks in fact playing himself?
  • Ayrs Mansion, by 2012, has become a nursing home.
  • Cavendish quotes from Soylent Green; another story steals a plot point from that film.
  • How much time transpires between Autua’s beating and his appearance on the ship? It seems to be a fairly short period and yet, despite the severity of his ordeal, he shows no physical signs of it. Conundrum or genre stylization or terrible continuity?
  • The woman in the nursing home is named Veronica Costello:

  • Astrophysics is not my field. If anyone has an explanation for those two moons being out of phase with each other, I’d like to hear it.