“Cloud Atlas” is easily one of the strangest and most ambitious movies of the year. It’s certainly the only movie we can think of featuring over 19 actors (including Tom Hanks and Halle Berry) playing multiple roles of various races and genders, six loosely connected storylines set in radically different time periods and locations, three directors, a two and a half hour plus running time, and one made up language.
Based on the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” was adapted for the screen by siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and their friend Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), who essentially split the project in half: The Wachowskis shepherded storylines set in 1849, 2144 and the 24th century, while Tykwer handled 1936, 1973 and 2012.
On screen, the story jumps from one century and location to another, intercutting the action to underscore similarities in themes and character traits through space and time. It’s heady stuff which will be genuinely moving and enlightening for some viewers, while reminding others of nothing more than dorm room philosophers.
But if you’re craving something different and adventurous at the movies, you won’t find anything more unusual in theaters right now. Here are three reasons why you should consider giving “Cloud Atlas” a shot:
1) Actors playing roles you’ve never seen before, and probably never will again
Berry as a white Jewish housewife in 1936 and a South Korean male doctor in 2144. Hanks as a Scottish thug in contemporary England and a pidgin-English spouting goatherd in post-apocalyptic 2346. Those are just some of the wildly diverse characters the film’s core group of performers are asked to take on.
Actors Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw play both men and women, actresses Susan Sarandon and Xun Zhou play women and men. South Korean actress Doona Bae plays a Mexican woman in 1973 and a white woman in the 19th Century, while Brits Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy play South Koreans in 2144. It’s enough to make your head spin.
But it’s not as confusing as it sounds since each storyline has a clear central protagonist and the size of each performer’s role in a given segment ranges from lead to cameo. Sometimes you may not even notice a familiar face in a bit part. It all works toward the film’s themes of rebirth, repetition, and interconnectedness. And while not every actor is convincing in every role, the experiment results in a few breakthrough turns: We knew Weaving was a chameleon, but who knew Hugh Grant could be so credible playing a range of villains (including a South Korean restaurant manager and a futuristic tribal warrior)? And Sturgess’ South Korean action hero is intensely charismatic even under heavy makeup.
2) It’s six movies in one
Even with all the boundary-pushing casting, the actors tend to shine brightest when they’re in the spotlight. Six actors serve as anchors for the film’s genre-hopping threads: Sturgess is a young lawyer enlightened to the horrors of slavery in a largely seabound adventure set in 1849, Whishaw is a gay composer whose sexuality causes trouble in his apprenticeship with a master in the melodrama set in 1936, Berry is an investigative journalist who uncovers corruption at a nuclear power plant in the conspiracy thriller set in 1973, Jim Broadbent is an aging publisher swept up in a raucous comedy at a retirement home in 2012, Bae is a genetically engineered restaurant server in the sci-fi action thriller set in 2144 and Hanks’ goatherd character headlines the epic journey set in 2321.
The highs and lows of each particular storyline may come down to viewer preference, but the Wachowskis are responsible for both the most viscerally exciting thread (the futuristic action of 2144’s Neo-Seoul recalls “The Matrix” by way of old-fashioned cliffhanger serials and gets a consistent kick from bold visuals and surprisingly deep emotions) and the most preposterous (the 24th century story is undone by uneven pacing and the thoroughly ridiculous, and frequently unintelligible, primitive dialogue). Tykwer’s contributions are more consistent. Berry’s command of the ’70s segment is one of the best movie star turns she’s ever delivered, and Broadbent is a pure delight in the freewheeling 2012 segment, which is occasionally forced but mostly just fun.
3) Love it, hate it, or feel somewhere in between, “Cloud Atlas” will inspire debates
It’s already receiving predictably divided critical reaction spanning adoration (Roger Ebert), disappointment (LA Times’ Kenneth Turan) and something in between (The New York Times’ A.O. Scott). And it should play about the same with audiences. Each of the Wachowski’s previous films has inspired rabid cult followings (even “Speed Racer”), and “Cloud Atlas” was practically made for cult appreciation. With a hefty production budget somewhere north of $100 million (most of it from independent and foreign financing, although Warner Bros. is releasing the film in the U.S.), there’s no doubt the filmmakers would hope to reach a broad audience to recoup the investment.
That seems like an uphill battle, but another of the film’s most explicitly stated themes is the potential for any individual to make a difference and inspire others to look at the world in a different way. By that standard, “Cloud Atlas” is already a success.