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Movie Review | Highly anticipated ‘Cloud Atlas’ nearly meets expectations

Film falters under weighty philosophical core

Published: Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 07:11

“Cloud Atlas” is as difficult to describe as the vaporous constructions that lend their name to the title. The film, an adaptation of the 2004 book of the same name by David Mitchell, has been brought to the screen by Tyler Tykwer and by auteurs Lana and Andy Wachowski. “Cloud Atlas” revolves around six separate narratives all connected through some initially vague but eventually very clear notions about life and the human experience.

These narratives are as follows: In 1849, a businessman is afflicted with a mysterious illness while harboring a slave on a sea voyage through the South Pacific. In 1936, a wily and prolific bisexual composer flees Cambridge in order to work with a gruff virtuoso. In 1973, an investigatory journalist risks her life in order to find the dark secrets looming around the creation of a nuclear power plant. In the present day, an absentminded and greedy book publisher gets trapped in a comedic but “One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest” (1975)−esque retirement home. In the dystopian future, a genetically engineered member of the serving class named Sonmi−451 becomes the beacon of a rebel movement. Finally, in a neo−tribal far−flung future, a goatherd named Zachary deals with the stresses of a creeping devil only he can see, while he combats bloodthirsty marauders intent on destroying him and his family and the appearance of a researcher from the mainland.

What do these stories have in common? For starters, one character in each of the narratives has a comet−shaped birthmark somewhere on his or her body. This repetitive imagery evokes abstract notions about free will, individual and collective freedom and human nature. This lofty film is one of the most highly anticipated of the year, and not just because it features huge stars like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess. Rather, it is because the movie’s form and style are unapologetically grand. Actors are transformed time and again throughout the film, changing makeup, character and sometimes even gender in a stylistic ploy used to romanticize notions of rebirth and continuation.

“Cloud Atlas” achieves something truly spectacular: It effortlessly blends together the six disparate narratives filmed by three different directors. Without shock or gaudy transitioning, the film allows the audience to jump from a slapstick scene in a retirement community to a dystopian car chase in which the future of democracy hangs in the balance. This effective arrangement is achieved through ambitious crosscutting strung together through voiceover narration and artful editing.

Still, the film does have its flaws. The portions in the far past and the far future, filmed by the Wachowskis, contain incredible effects and set pieces as would be expected. However, the suggestions in these portions are somewhat indelicate. The Wachowskis attempt to recreate the glory of “The Matrix” (1999), with its marvel of philosophical pondering and cinematic spectacle.

Instead, the Wachowskis’ heavy−handed conceptualization comes off as pedantic. In fact, their dystopian future was so derivative of “The Matrix” that it came across as meta−theatrical self−awareness, with elements of farce permeating the production. Instead, the most marvelous cinematography comes from Tykwer, who tackled the scenes closest to our present times — those of the composer, the journalist and the publisher. These narratives contain comedy, grief and intrigue while maintaining an air of mystery and subtlety that the Wachowskis failed to grasp.

“Cloud Atlas” is a two−faced film: It is at once stimulating and stock. Though the film is no doubt entertaining and worth the ticket price, whether or not it succeeds in creating an intellectually stimulating statement about the realities of life and interconnectedness of love that can span generations is a different story.

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