One man's ambitious, iconoclastic, like-nothing-ever-before-seen passion project is another man's Battlefield Earth, and so it goes that for some of us who saw the film's world premiere in Toronto last night, Cloud Atlas — written and directed by Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski from David Mitchell's novel — is a truly stunning misuse of talent and resources, and for others, it's the film of the festival, if not the year.
The central gimmick is that each actor (from superstars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry to a crew of international players, many of them previously unknown to me) appears as multiple characters within six stories set around the world (Hawaii, San Francisco, the Pacific Ocean, London, “Neo Seoul”) and across ages past, present and future. Each story is interwoven, one fragment at a time, via painfully drawn-out L-cuts which connect characters across centuries via internal monologue (some are also connected by a common birthmark in the shape of a comet). Adversity is faced and the lesson is repeatedly learned that people born of different races, bloodlines and sexual orientations are all equally human. Unless they're snooty book critics, corporate hit men, hard-ass retirement home nurses, or anyone else who disrupts a hero character's journey.
The players transition between characters with the aid of exaggerated accents and elaborate facial prosthetics that more often than not look like they were picked up at a Halloween pop-up and applied by the actors themselves. I'm not kidding — the constant reveals of the same players in new roles in different eras is a “joke” that's way overplayed, but I really think that what plays as a lack of quality control is actual intentional, for two reasons. First of all, from a commercial standpoint (and while independently financed, Cloud Atlas needs to attract a massive audience in order to justify its enormous expense), truly transformative facial effects wouldn't make sense, because what's the point of having Tom Hanks in your movie if no one can tell he's Tom Hanks?
But more importantly, the, shall we say, “handmade” quality of the make-up fits in with what seems to be the film's guiding ethos. I haven't read Mitchell's book, but in many ways the film adaptation would seem to reflect the point of view of co-director Lana Wachowski — who was born Larry and has transitioned from male to female since the release of the last Wachowski film, Speed Racer. Formally, it's an experiment in the self-designed mutability of the body (up to and including male actors playing women and at least one star apparently cast as a character of a different race); thematically, it builds to a series of variations on the idea that we are all the same on the inside regardless of our born and/or lived exterior, and should all be entitled to the freedom to look and behave in the manner most true to our inner selves.
This altruistic message is great in theory, but it's confused by the film's abysmally inconsistent, tone-deaf execution, and contradicted by the film's videogame casualness when it comes to violence. A manifesto in the form of an enormously budgeted quasi-sci-fi epic, Cloud Atlas is evidently personal, defiantly sincere, totally lacking in self-awareness, and borderline offensive in its gleeful endorsement of revenge violence against anyone who gets in the way of a good person's self-actualization. The rest of the time, it's just insipid, TV-esque in its limited visual imagination, and dramatically incoherent.