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‘Cloud Atlas’ is laughably self-serious, totally ineffective

Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) plays one of countless fabricated restaurant workers, one who dares to escape a daily routine of servitude.

LOS ANGELES: Maybe if you’re 20-years-old and high in your dormitory room with your friends, the platitudes presented in “Cloud Atlas” might seem profound.

Anyone else in his or her right mind should recognize it for what it is: a bloated, pseudo-intellectual, self-indulgent slog through some notions that are really rather facile.

Ooh, we’re all interconnected and our souls keep meeting up with each other over the centuries, regardless of race, gender or geography. We’re individual drops of water but we’re all part of the same ocean. That is deep, man.

Perhaps it all worked better on the page. “Cloud Atlas” comes from David Mitchell’s best-selling novel of the same name which, in theory, might have seemed unfilmable, encompassing six stories over a span of 500 years and including some primitive dialogue in a far-away future.

Working with “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer, sibling directors Lana and Andy Wachowski – who actually have come up with some original, provocative ideas of their own in their first “Matrix” movie – have chopped up the various narratives and intercut between them out of order. The A-list cast play multiple parts across the various stories in elaborate, often laughable, makeup.

Tom Hanks is a scheming doctor on a voyage across the South Pacific in 1849, a trash-talking novelist in contemporary London and a peaceful goatherd who’s part of a post-apocalyptic tribe in the 2300s.

Halle Berry is a composer’s white trophy wife in 1936 Scotland, an investigative reporter in 1973 San Francisco and a member of an elite society of prescients in the farthest future.

Least recognizable beneath layers of prosthetics and goop is Hugh Grant: at one point he’s a vengeful old man; at another, he’s the raging leader of a band of cannibals.

One easy rule of thumb is that, if you see Hugo Weaving, you know he’s a villain. Except for the story line in which he plays a woman – an oppressive Nurse Ratched-type figure in a psychiatric hospital.

Maybe the concept of transformation and of connectedness despite the physical vessels we occupy felt especially resonant for the transgender Lana Wachowski – formerly Larry Wachowski – but rather than serving as a satisfying, cohesive device, the multiple-parts strategy feels like a distracting gimmick.

Instead of seamlessly melding with the film’s philosophy of continuity, it keeps you constantly wondering, “Who is that actor made up to look Asian? Who is that beneath the henna tattoos and macrame? Is that ... Susan Sarandon?” It takes you out of the heart of the stories and holds you at arm’s length.

“Cloud Atlas” is ambitious in its scope. It’s fluidly edited and often wondrous to look at but totally ineffective, emotionally speaking.

As you’re watching it you may ponder whether any of these six stories across disparate genres would be more compelling as its own, stand-alone film. Possibly the one set in pre-World War II, starring Ben Whishaw as an up-and-coming composer who flees London when he’s exposed as a homosexual and goes to work for an ageing musical master (Jim Broadbent), all the while writing letters to his lover (James D’Arcy) full of humor and longing.

The most ridiculous tale is the one that takes place “After the Fall” in Hawaii in the mid-2300s. It requires Hanks and Berry to yammer at each other in a disjointed, stripped-down version of English that’s as indecipherable as it is laughable. Even more unintentionally hilarious is the sight of Weaving hopping around in green makeup like some subversive leprechaun, whispering naughty things in Hanks’ ear.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most engaging tale of all is set in the gleaming, futuristic city of Neo Seoul, a place of detailed, totalitarian precision built atop the remnants of a flood.

There, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is one of countless fabricated restaurant workers locked in a daily routine of servitude and sleep. She longs to think for herself and dares to escape with the help of a young revolutionary played by Jim Sturgess.

It’s hugely derivative with its garish, dystopian aesthetic and themes of machines turning on the people who invented them, but it’s also the only one that comes close to capturing any real sense of humanity.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 26, 2012, on page 16.

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