If you have no problem throwing away three hours of your life while being insulted and feeling talked down to, "Cloud Atlas" will provide for a superior waste of time and an assault on your id and ego. Breaking and setting new bars for words like pretentious, bloated, overlong, pompous, vacuous and grating, "Cloud Atlas" encapsulates everything mainstream audiences hate about high-concept/art films and will test the patience and artistic latitude of even the most forgiving and open-minded viewers.
Despite the presence of no less than four Oscar-winning actors, distributor Warner Bros. contributed only a sliver of the more than $100 million production cost and left the remainder to be picked up by independent investors (read: friends and family of the cast and filmmakers) with far too much expendable money. "Cloud Atlas" is what they call a vanity project. If any studio doesn't want to get fully behind any film starring Tom Hanks -- something terribly afoul is going on.
You've undoubtedly heard of -- or yourself read -- books, even great ones that are totally incapable of being made into movies ("Atlas Shrugged" for example). This is the case with David Mitchell's 2004 novel "Cloud Atlas." What worked so well (or so they say) on the printed page is beyond impossible to reproduce on screen but that does nothing to stop the three headstrong directors/screenwriters from trying.
For their part, the Wachowski siblings (Andy and his sister Lana -- formerly his brother Larry) essentially handle the material that is set in the far past (1849) and the future (2144 and 2321). Getting into the plots of any of these sections is tough as there is hardly any of it but thumb-nailing them is somewhat possible. The first is "Moby Dick" by way of "Amistad" dealing with black slavery and murder on the high seas. The next takes place in futuristic Korea where the sex/slavery trade is booming and comes off as a porn version of the Wachowski's abysmal "Speed Racer." The last takes places during a post-apocalyptic tribal war that recalls the "Planet of the Apes" franchise melded with "The Matrix."
Fairing slightly better is German-born Tom Tykwer whose portions take place in 1936, 1973 and 2012. The first -- a riff on "Amadeus" -- involves an aging composer who finds himself challenged by an upstart gay understudy. Tykwer's second piece -- the best in the film -- is a conspiracy thriller set in the 1970s that is masterfully shot to perfectly capture that enigmatic cinematic time frame. The final -- set in the present day -- is a Kafka-inspired literary thriller and is by far the least satisfying sub-plot of entire lot.
Not content with casting 13 principals to play close to 40 characters in six segments with a nearly three-hour running time, the filmmakers chose to present it all wildly out-of-sequence -- think "The Godfather II" on acid. The end of one scenario is followed by the middle of another and then the start of another and so on and so on. If you're real sharp and pay ultra-close attention you might have an idea of what's going after about 30 minutes. By this time all of the scenarios have been introduced and the chronological leapfrogging begins in earnest.
If this wasn't enough to make you feel that you're being punished, the principal cast (Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Strurgess, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw) appear in each scenario as different people (Shirley MacLaine meets "The Matrix"). In order keep things visually consistent, the make-up crew buries the cast under what had to literally be tons of powder, putty, tattoos and prosthetics. One of them (Weaving) not only changes gender but also joins a few others (Berry, Sturgess and Bae) who change their race. The result is far too many instances of unintended humor, more than a subtle undercurrent of racial stereotyping and "yellow black-facing." Asian audience members in particular will find this aspect of the production highly off-putting.
If someone told you a year ago Tom Hanks couldn't possibly appear in another movie that would be worse than "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," you'd probably agree with them. At least in that film Hanks had only a glorified cameo and emerged relatively unscathed. No such luck with "Cloud Atlas." Even though this is an ensemble piece, Hanks' name is first on the non-alphabetical list on one of the posters and he has the most screen time. Never before and hopefully never again in the future should one of the greatest actors alive come off looking like a desperate, egomaniacal and untalented spotlight hound. (Warner Bros.)