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Cloud Atlas / *** (R)

Posted Sunday, November 4, 2012, at 11:15 PM

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry head a revolving cast in an epic collection of stories spanning the history and future of man in the new sci-fi movie "Cloud Atlas".
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer. Written by Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski. Based on the book by David Mitchell. Running time: 172 min. Rated R (for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use).

The first ten minutes I spent on this review was researching various quotes and definitions about history, repeating the mistakes of the past, and how everything is connected. Normally, I would begin a review for a movie such as "Cloud Atlas" with a famous quotation that sums up the ideas expressed in its epic scope. I chose not to with this film because a part of its effectiveness comes from trying to figure out what it all means as you go. It is important however to know that it deals with different historical periods--past, present, and future--how they connect with each other, and how mankind seems either doomed or blessed to repeat its mistakes.

Clocking in at just under three hours, it's safe to say that "Cloud Atlas" requires a certain amount of investment from its audience. If you are willing to commit to it, however, it is a sublimely fulfilling experience.

The film was made as part of a collaborative effort by The Wachowskis, responsible for The Matrix Trilogy, and German director Tom Tykwer, who made the relentlessly entertaining "Run, Lola Run" and adapted the book "Perform: The Story of a Murderer" into a very disturbing movie about murder and aroma. I haven't read David Mitchell's book "Cloud Atlas", but from the film I would assume that many claimed this was an unfilmable book. What these visionary filmmakers have produced in this movie is something wildly unexpected and original to their own work and the entire history of movies.

We are presented with six different stories taking place in six different locations and time periods--a sailing vessel in the Pacific Ocean circa 1849; Edniburgh, Scotland, 1936; San Francisco, California, 1975; the United Kingdom, 2012; Neo Seoul, Korea, 2144; and an uncharted future time more than 100 years after an event known as "The Fall". Each story has a primary character, and one supporting character from the 1939 story also appears as an old man in a supporting role in the 1973 story. There are a dozen or so major actors playing various roles in all of the storylines. Star Tom Hanks takes on the most roles, appearing in a speaking part in every one of the storylines. Many of the other players also appear in all six stories with roles ranging from background extras to major supporting roles in the stories in which they don't star as the main character. It's a whirlwind of names, places and hidden connections.

If I were to go into the plots of each individual story, this review would push record lengths. What the filmmakers achieve with their intercutting between the storylines is an example of kinetic propulsion. The film begins by switching at a quick rate creating first confusion and then a sense that what's important as an audience member is to sit back and let it happen. Once you succumb to that notion everything starts to connect with everything else.

There are themes that connect the stories in the same way the actors do. Slavery, anti-Semitism, anti-gay prejudice, ageism, and even the treatment of clones as second-class citizens in the future sequence all exemplify the recurring human mistakes throughout our history. It may often affect different minorities, but the majority rule of "accepted" social structures are always the same. They are always wrong. Also the greed of corporation is a constant in all the storylines. From the earliest set story where a property sale provides reason for corruption and outright thievery that place the lives of slaves and one white man in danger, to a story of corporate espionage suggesting the horrors of the real life Three Mile Island incident all stem from the notion of the rich holding the lives of other citizens to the whimsy of profit.

The Wachowskis handle the futuristic sequences and provide some exciting action sequences to go along with their philosophical ponderings. There is a chase sequence that recounts their work in "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Speed Racer". It is in no way out of context, however. Their 2144 production design is reminiscent of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner". They also use actor Hugo Weaving in much the same capacity as Agent Smith from "The Matrix" trilogy.

Tykwer handles some of the past period pieces, evoking time setting with ease, yet working the same philosophical ideas from the future sequences in without distracting from the topics of the time period. He chooses his actors well. James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw seem perfectly cast within the volatile times of pre-WWII, yet they still have this sense of being out of place due to the nature of their relationship. Jim Sturgess makes a good hero in past adventures and future.

The only drawback of using the same actors in different locations and cultures is that sometimes the constraint of make-up can be felt. Maybe it doesn't mater how good your make-up artists are, a Caucasian never looks right as an Asian, and Asians never looks quite right as Caucasians. It's always a little disturbing to see a Caucasian in Asian make-up, and the film has come under fire for its offensive portrayal of the Asians played by the Caucasian actors. The offense is a kneejerk reaction to past cinematic sins. Since the cast is racially mixed and all are asked to play different races, I believe the offense is only imagined. Halle Berry is successfully made to look like a Jewish aristocrat in pre-WWII Europe for one of her roles.

To call "Cloud Atlas" epic in scope is an understatement. At times it seems to outreach even its lofty goals, but I've never seen its cinematic equal. Its ambition is beyond any other film that comes to mind. Its weaknesses minor in contrast to its success. It is bold and visionary. It is a film that will definitely benefit from multiple viewings. It leaves you with an eagerness to understand it, and if you let it wash over you, understanding will form. This is cinematic wizardry as art. In this medium the two rarely meet. The wizardry is too often set aside for popcorn fare rather than movies that make you think. This one will make you wonder with its wonders.

"Cloud Atlas" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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