1. We loved Cloud Atlas the book by David Mitchell—we remember where we were when we read it, and what we were wearing. We have forced it on our friends. But if you ask us for a plot summary, we couldn’t give you one. It’s too vast, with many characters and timelines and seemingly unrelated events that turn out to be connected in the end. (Our favorite was the composer, who sounded very camp.) Mitchell is a writer whose talent matches his ambitions. So when we heard that the Wachowskis and Tykwer were doing a film adaptation, we saluted them for their bravery and wished them luck: the material seems unfilmable.
2. Is this the year of make-up that calls attention to itself? The distracting make-up to flatten Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s features in Looper and make him a plausible younger version of Bruce Willis. (Didn’t they trust his acting to fill in the belief gap?) The old age make-up Guy Pearce wore in Prometheus (They couldn’t hire an actual old person? Yes, there was the fake TED talk, but the looks don’t have to be a perfect match.) Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins as Lincoln and Hitchcock, respectively.
The make-up in Cloud Atlas is in another category altogether. We found most of it risible: Halle Berry as a white Jewish woman; Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving as Koreans; Doona Bae as an American from the South; Hugh Grant as the villain in The Last of the Mohicans after he goes on a bender and wakes up in a tattoo parlor…There’s also Hugo Weaving in drag, but we’ve seen that before. (We think of Weaving as being perpetually in drag.)
However, there is a point to the funny make-up. The directors’ decision to cast the actors in multiple roles of different ethnicities and time periods has been criticized widely, but it’s a storytelling shortcut. It saves time on exposition, and we’re talking about a movie that clocks in at 2 hours, 51 minutes. It establishes that they are the same souls occupying different bodies. (Your interpretation of the book may be different, but this is the movie’s.)
3. In adapting Cloud Atlas, the main problem is how to shift forth and back between many characters in different timelines without giving the audience whiplash. The Wachowskis and Tykwer deal with this by organizing the action according to theme: love, death, friendship, betrayal, etc. It’s neater, and we like how there’s little explanation of who the characters are and how they got there—just like in the book.
Cloud Atlas is a movie that makes you go “WTF!” every ten minutes.
4. The Neo Seoul story is very The Matrix, which makes us miss Keanu Reeves. As Keanu already looks sort of Asian, he wouldn’t need distracting make-up. The Wachowskis do love their martyr-messiahs. And Tom Tykwer loves the eternal recurrence stuff (Run Lola Run; The Princess and the Warrior).
5. Don’t tax yourself by trying to follow the plot. That is the road to a headache. Just watch the action unfold, eat your popcorn and drink your Coke (or M&Ms and coffee). There’s some great stuff: the surprisingly moving love story of Frobisher and Sixsmith, the hilarious escape from the old folks’ home, the nuclear plant conspiracy. All directed by Tykwer, by the way; the Wachowskis are still over-fond of clutter.
Later, assuming you haven’t zoned out, you’ll see the connections. If you don’t, you can read the book (It’s Wonderful!).
6. We expected to loathe the movie but we ended up enjoying half of it. Not always for the right reasons (Tom Hanks’s hair!), but we’ll take what we can get. Interesting effort. There’s too much cheap pandering in the movies; give us failed ambition.