Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess
Rated: R, for violence, language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
Runtime: 2 hours, 44 minutes
Bottom line: Ambitious but confusing
In 1916, D.W. Griffith followed up his racist yet massively successful film “Birth of a Nation” with “Intolerance,” a 3«-hour long epic consisting of four separate stories, each set in a different time and place: ancient Babylon, the time of Christ, France in 1572 and contemporary America.
The only thing that binds the stories is the theme of intolerance, and the structure was completely unprecedented.
Rather than telling each story in its entirety then moving on to the next like an anthology, Griffith intercuts the stories — one scene from one story, then a scene from another story, and so on. During the climactic sequence, Griffith melds the stories even more intricately, cutting among individual actions within the stories.
“Intolerance” is impressive from a technical standpoint (to this day, every film major watches it), but for the most part moviegoers found it tedious and confusing. It was the beginning of the end for Griffith, who gradually fell into complete irrelevance.
No one since then has attempted the same technique on the same epic scale — until now.
“Cloud Atlas” tells six stories, each set in a different time and place, all linked by the themes of freedom and the interconnectedness of human beings.
Based on a David Mitchell novel, the movie was co-written and co-directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”). It features a stellar cast lead by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw, Keith David, Xun Zhou and Doona Bae.
This is a mammoth production that will surely generate a lot of conversation.
The ideas here are genuinely beautiful. On one level, the film plays like a desperate plea for compassion at a time when the world is becoming increasingly intolerant. It provides a few moments likely to have you wiping your eyes.
The structure is lovely in some ways, too. A piece of classical music written by one of the characters, called the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” helps tie the stories together, and the movie borrows from musical structure.
The stories are like movements in a symphony or variations on a musical theme, each used sometimes as melody and sometimes as counter-melody. The film repeatedly comes back to this refrain, which provides the work’s core meaning: “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
It’s a highly philosophical, high concept film, made all the more risky by its structure and scope.
I admire filmmakers with the courage to attempt something novel, to put a work of art into the world knowing full well that no matter how effectively they realize their vision, many will dismiss or even mock it.
So bravo to the Wachowskis and Tykwer. I hope you continue to be so bold.
The problem is, I admired “Cloud Atlas” more than I enjoyed it. Just like “Intolerance,” the second act drags painfully. And for a solid hour, I wasn’t sure what this movie is about. The movie asks viewers to show a great deal of patience.
Each of the actors plays a role in each story, wearing prosthetics and makeup to give them a radically different appearance in each tale. This choice is supposed to hint that these are the same characters reincarnated into various times and to underscore the theme of interconnectedness.
But after a while it drifts into gimmick. The audience began playing spot the actor rather than focusing on the philosophy the filmmakers were trying to espouse.
And while the climax of the interweaved stories is moving, the filmmakers then tack on an epilogue for each story, too. They’re aiming for a powerful final statement, but that power is sapped by redundancy as the same point is made several times.
“Cloud Atlas” is both a great achievement and a confounding movie. It is worth the attention of every serious movie fan, but those fans should expect to walk away divided over the film’s merits.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.