In an industry seemingly stuck in an endless loop of formulaic plotlines and uninspired remakes, it is always refreshing to see something different premiering in the cinema.
British author David Mitchell’s 2004 novel, “Cloud Atlas,” won critical acclaim and several prestigious awards for its portrayal of six interwoven stories, ranging in place and time from a ship in the South Pacific in 1850 to a dystopian South Korea in the “near future.”
For those unsatisfied with the novel, the primary criticism was the story had lofty aspirations the prose simply failed to meet.
Unfortunately, the movie adaptation of “Cloud Atlas” has similar pitfalls.
Written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski with Tom Tykwer, “Cloud Atlas” got considerable hype prior to its release, thanks to reports of it getting a 10-minute standing ovation after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
An all-star cast also provoked interest, with big names such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving sporting starring roles.
But when reviews started to come out, they were thoroughly mixed, with big-time critics giving polarizing reviews. Roger Ebert, for example, gave the film four out of four stars; in contrast, Slant Magazine’s Calum Marsh called it simply “a disaster.”
With most things, the truth is likely to lie somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
To its credit, “Cloud Atlas” is ambitious in a way that the vast majority of movies made these days would not even dream of.
With a story spanning several hundred years and numerous characters, the film’s scope is about as big as it gets.
And the plotlines are compelling, with interesting characters and nuanced interactions from the competent actors.
The cinematography is also a hit, thanks in a large part to John Toll, who has worked on movies such as “Legends of the Fall” and “The Thin Red Line.”
But this simply was not enough to make up for the failings of “Cloud Atlas.”
In truth, the film falls prey to the same issues that seem to be hallmarks of the Wachowskis since “The Matrix” — the story is too ambitious, tries too hard to have a greater meaning, and simply ends up falling far short of its potential.
The greatest issue is the screenplay, which attempts to tell six different stories in six different times and places, out of order and non-chronologically.
What may have worked in print just does not work on the more ephemeral screen; it ends up confusing and messy, rather than thought provoking.
Having the actors play several different roles (Tom Hanks, for example, plays a dangerous doctor on the 1850’s ship, a scientist helping to blow the whistle on a power company, and a tribesman in a post-apocalyptic, distant-future Hawaii, among other roles) is just confusing.
I am not adverse to movies that require the audience to think, but this is no “Memento” or “Inception.”
The more complex the film gets in story and structure, the better it must be in showing a coherently connected plot.
“Cloud Atlas” simply fails to do that. The connections between the stories feel contrived and having three different directors means there are noticeable differences in style that serve as distractions.
It is unfortunate “Cloud Atlas” is going to flop — early box office scores has it debuting in 3rd place with only $9.4 million, on the back of an astounding $102 million budget.
After all, it is rare to see cerebral films get wide releases in our near-ADHD culture, and seeing “Cloud Atlas” flop is just one more excuse for studios to not make films that take a chance.
Coming Nov. 2:
“Flight” – Commercial pilot Whip Whitaker is forced to make an emergency air landing, initially leading to fame and fanfare for the near-impossible feat. But when investigations begin into the cause of the crash, it is discovered that Whitaker had alcohol in his system.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo
“The Man with the Iron Fists” – This story follows a blacksmith in 19th century China who has to protect his village against a traitor. The film is directed and written (with horror film aficionado Eli Roth) by the rapper RZA, and marketed as “Quentin Tarantino Presents.”
Starring: Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA