Tom Hanks and Halle Berry go all out to give the mad, multi-stranded sci-fi folly a bad name.
At the climax of Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life, Michael Palin – playing a bored dowager in a chartreuse ballgown – is handed a golden envelope containing the answer to the ultimate question.
For the previous 90 minutes, the Pythons have delivered a series of unconnected vignettes presenting the seven ages of man as a tasteless cavalcade of frenzy, humiliation and deviance. Finally, Palin opens the letter. It reads, "Well, it’s nothing very special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book now and then, and try and live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
And that, in a nutshell, is Cloud Atlas, 172 long, long minutes of messing around in a dressing-up box, all capped off with a desultory existential bon mot that’s so lazy, weak and obvious it could have easily fallen out of a defective Christmas cracker.
Drawing from David Mitchell’s acclaimed and purportedly 'unfilmable' 2004 sci-fi doorstop, directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (with assists from Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer) present six disparate shaggy-dog stories that take place at various points throughout history, all featuring combinations of their principal cast in daft hair pieces and distracting prosthetics.
So we have bucktoothed medic Tom Hanks up to chicanery on a 19th-century schooner. Then there’s tattooed, cowardly future-man Tom Hanks tooling around post-apocalypse Hawaii and talking gibberish with Halle Berry. The directors’ sole task is to convince us that these malformed little tales are interconnected by threads of eternal commonality.
The result is a baffling confection that plays out like a gross parody of an august prestige picture and one that singularly fails to bind its various strands into anything even approaching a cohesive whole. Cutting back and forth between six obscure, aimless stories doesn’t make the overall proceedings any more pointed or interesting. Making your film long does not make it epic.
Wilfully recycling your acting ensemble in order to ram home your misfiring declarations about the universality of the human condition is not ambitious, but tiring and indulgent. It creates a distancing effect. And isn’t having most of the well-to-do Western heroes eventually rescued or redeemed by a coterie of ‘magical ethnics’ – a beatific Korean sex-bot, a South African slave, an irate, bereaved Mexican "wetback", some Scottish rugby hooligans – rather undermining the world-hugging premise?
Never mind. As long as everyone’s in constant floods of tears and the soundtrack swells in all the right places, perhaps no one will notice.
Visually, there are pros and cons. Some fairly basic outdoor scenes have clearly been shot in the studio, giving the film and occasionally staid, synthetic feel. Elsewhere, a high-styled sci-fi milieu transports us to a futuristic, Manga-inspired Neo Seoul where we are able to revel in some breathtaking production design.
Also, a thumping astro-bike chase suggests the Wachowskis took a few edit-room lessons away from the failure of Speed Racer. Indeed, the editing on the whole is effective, with the rigorous cross-cutting during first half of the film at least giving the illusion that there’s an organic relationship between these discordant tales. Even if, frankly, there really isn’t.
An occasional reminder that we are all stardust, that we’re all in this together and, hell, that we’re all Tom Hanks is never wholly unwelcome, but the faux-seraphic, overblown, self-congratulatory, logically sketchy fog that engulfs Cloud Atlas drains that message of all its colour and shade. Life is sweet and Cloud Atlas – to quote God – is nothing very special.
Releasing a six-minute trailer is suggestive of eleventh-hour panic.
The perfect film for all those people whose one, undying wish in life is to swim with dolphins.
We wish we could call this a mad folly…