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Cloud Atlas - movie review

There’s a lot going on in this film, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The big question—as far as whether you’ll get anything at all out of this centuries-spanning 170 minute epic—is this: do you find bad prosthetic make-up automatically hilarious?

Do you find it impossibly distracting, or can you look at a clearly fake nose and think to yourself “I can see what they’re going for here, and I’m going to go with it”? Can you take seriously a movie where Hugh Grant is made up to look like a sleazy Korean businessman, a heavily tattooed and barbaric future cannibal, and a modern day dodgy millionaire with a face like a melted wax statue of Rob Brydon?

Cloud Atlas tells six separate but intertwined stories covering a period of around five hundred years. In 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is in the South Pacific to negotiate with a slave trader when he falls ill. Sailing home under the care of Doctor Henry Goose (Tom Hanks), he meets a stowaway (David Gyasi) who becomes a central character in the journal he’s writing – a journal that will be read by would-be composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in England in the 1930s. He’s left his lover Rufus Sixmith (James D'Arcy) to try and weedle his way into the employ of once great composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in the hopes of kickstarting his career, and we know from the film’s opening that his story ends badly – badly enough that when Sixsmith turns up in San Francisco in the 1970s as part of a sinister nuclear conspiracy being investigated by journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), he’s still a haunted man.

Meanwhile in 2012 UK publishing executive Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), on the run after a thug author (Tom Hanks) that he published runs afoul of the law, ends up imprisoned in an old people’s home that’s been established in Ayrs’ converted mansion. In the future in the Korean city of Neo Seoul, clone worker Sonmi-451 (Donna Bae) discovers her own individual identity via a clip (starring Tom Hanks) of the movie version of Cavendish’s ordeal before she’s set free by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess), one of the leaders of the anti-slave rebellion. And in the distant future on an island that’s reverted to savagery and where the people worship Sonmi, Zachry (Tom Hanks) leads Meronym (Halle Berry), a member of a more advanced civilisation called the Prescients, to a long-forgotten communications relay that holds the hope of saving both their communities.

Even for a close to three hour film that’s a lot going on. It’s to directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski’s credit that Cloud Atlas skips so lightly back and forth between the six plotlines, all of which are connected of a variety of levels through time. Ayrs dreams of the music in Sonmi’s fast food joint, which inspires Frobisher to compose ‘The Cloud Atlas Sextet’; Cavendish reads a manuscript titled “A Luisa Ray Mystery”; Hugh Grant has Tom Hanks murdered in one timeline, and is murdered by him in turn in another. Storylines are edited together to reflect each other: a dramatic car chase in one timeline is intercut with a comedy car chase in another, someone making a “Soylent Green is people” joke in one timeline proves to be a grim foreshadowing of another timeline, and a character’s musing on the evils of slavery is reflected by… well, pretty much everyone here is yearning for freedom of one kind or another.

Once you get beyond the style though, Cloud Atlas isn’t particularly deep. Slavery and corporate exploitation are bad, people want to be free, and Hugo Weaving is evil no matter what time period he turns up in (amongst his roles are a brutal female nurse, a blonde hitman and the Devil incarnate). The themes of reincarnation and destiny aren’t exactly eye-opening either. Some people live the same kind of lives over and over - if you’re Hugh Grant, you’re always going to be charming but nasty; Jim Sturgess is always going to be about freeing slaves – while others get to develop through their incarnations. For that we needed to see Donna Bae as an unconvincing Mexican woman, Jim Broadbent as a Korean musician and Tom Hanks with five centuries worth of ridiculous hairstyles?

As stand alone tales, the stories are generally fun but fairly lightweight. The action in Neo Seoul is thrilling and looks great, Cavendish’s tale is a lot of light-hearted fun, and Whishaw gives Frobisher’s fatal ambition real pathos. It’s in casting the same actors in different roles across the six storylines that this film hopes to get across its big serious message about our interconnected lives. But all too often the make-up is distractingly uneven (anyone playing a different race or someone older rarely fare well), and even when it does work often the film is reduced to a game of spot-the-actor. Is that Ben Whishaw as a hippie record store clerk? Sure, why not.

Unlike a lot of films that strive to be profound, Cloud Atlas isn’t overly pretentious. It has a sense of humour, knows how to stage action, and works hard to ensure that each individual story satisfies within its chosen genre. But in the end you’re still watching a lot of name actors wearing wigs and fake noses in an attempt to get across the idea that “lives intersect”. Nobody tell them about Facebook, okay?

Anthony Morris

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