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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 05:40 am

Atlas tries but dies

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Tom Hanks as Valleysman Zachry and Halle Berry as Meronym in Cloud Atlas.

To be sure, the big screen adaptation of David Mitchell’s best-selling novel Cloud Atlas is an ambitious undertaking. Its very nature has led some to say it’s a property that could not be done justice to as a movie, and there may be something to that. It’s a sprawling story composed of six different stories that take place in various eras. The complexities of Mitchell’s ideas do get short shrift here, but credit must go to directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run) for even attempting to tackle this. That their ambition exceeds their grasp isn’t due to their lack of trying and while the film ultimately doesn’t deliver on its promise of a profound message on the state of being, it’s still an intriguing movie that must be applauded for its massive scope and distinct vision.

Any attempt to sum up the plot would be a foolhardy exercise, a description that some may apply to Atlas itself. One thing is certain, the directors don’t cotton to any fools. They immediately drop the viewer into a half dozen different plot lines in the film’s first 15 minutes and if you can’t keep up, well woe is you; it’s going to be a long three hours. However, if patience is applied, you will soon pick up on the rhythm of the film. The six stories in the film span from 1849 to 2250 and involve a myriad of characters, played by a cast that reappears in each story. Tom Hanks stars as a duplicitous doctor on a wayward ship in 1849, a seedy hotel clerk in London, circa 1936, a nuclear scientist in 1973, a thuggish author in 2012 and a post-apocalyptic survivor in 2250. Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon pull off a similar feat, each allowed to run a thespian gauntlet in being given a wide variety of roles.  

While the conceit of the film is to show that each story dovetails into the next somehow, the connections are tenuous at best. One of the predominant themes is that oppression of the masses and the exploitation of workers is a condition that has appeared in the past and will continue to exist well into the future. Seemingly, nothing will stop it but the film suggests that it might be temporarily stymied now and again if a martyr appears to stand up against it. No great revelation there, and the movie’s other major tropes suffer from being, while noble, hardly original. Extreme acts of love, heinous crimes, examples of hope and greed, as well as instances of great tragedy and incredible miracles occur in the various stories. Instead of being a grand pronouncement on the state of being, the film simply confirms what we know all along about the nature of life.

Still, it’s a spectacle worth seeing. While it has a sprawling running time, the movie is never boring, keeping us intrigued throughout with its grand ambition. As each story reaches its climax in the final hour, the directors do a masterful job of cutting back and forth between each, building suspense until each thread reaches its denouement. At the very least, we’re treated to some very good filmmaking and some stunning visuals, as the Wachowskis build on the unique aesthetic they introduced in Speed Racer in the 2046 story, while Tykwer holds his own, building the proper amount of pathos and suspense in the sections designated to him.

With its simplistic platitudes (“By each crime and every kindness, we birth out future”) and allusions to other sci-fi films (Soylent Green, 2001: A Space Odyssey) Cloud Atlas ends up being a rather expensive cinematic game of connect the dots. At the very least, it must be said the movie does its best to exemplify its most profound sentiment that boundaries are made to be broken. While the Wachowskis and Tykwer fail to fully realize this, it’s surely not for lack of trying and such an effort, in this era of cookie cutter cinema, must be appreciated.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org

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