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Ambitious, soulless 'Cloud Atlas' shrugs off potential

Friday - 10/26/2012, 11:19am  ET

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tom Hanks in a scene from ''Cloud Atlas,'' an epic spanning centuries and genres. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Reiner Bajo)
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Parting the Clouds

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley admired the ambition of "Cloud Atlas," but wasn't moved.


Jason Fraley, WTOP film critic

WASHINGTON - In his fall movie preview, Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers said he was "betting on Tom Tykwer teaming with the Wachowskis to create a new matrix for what film can do. Or it could suck. Place your bets."

Indeed, "Cloud Atlas" looked awesome on paper: A trio of proven filmmakers, Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and the Wachowski siblings ("The Matrix," "V for Vendetta"), taking on a successful 2004 book by David Mitchell and telling an ambitious story. Six interweaving tales, each in a different time period and genre, recycling the same group of actors in different roles as their souls transfer through time, all tied together by a comet tattoo and a constant music symphony.

If executed to its potential, this project would surely be Best Picture material, a work of transcendence, a philosophical work of art with a popular enough cast to grab some mainstream appeal. The bets are placed. The time for poker-faced potential is over. Time to show your cards.

Moviegoers should have folded this hand: a literary page-turner that became a pretentious watch-checker in the movie theater, a grand experiment that proved a welcome challenge for the cast but ultimately evaded its filmmakers, and a three-hour behemoth that was far better in the trailer.

Neo and The Desert of the Real, meet Neo Seoul and The Planet of True True:

"Cloud Atlas" arrives a century after D.W. Griffith invented interwoven film storylines in "Intolerance" (1916) by staging four separate stories, in four time periods, tinted in four color film stocks.

Here, the filmmakers up the ante to six interweaving tales, each from different time periods and each in different genres. The first four are directed by Tykwer, the final two by the Wachowskis:

    1) 1849: Historical Adventure: Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is a good-hearted American on a ship in the South Pacific who is gradually poisoned by the wily Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks). He finds friendship in a slave he witnessed being whipped and helps the slave stow away on the ship, before championing the abolitionist cause. Follows the template of "Roots" (1977), "Glory" (1989) and "Amistad" (1997).

    2) 1936: Period Piece Costume Drama: Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) is a homosexual composer who becomes an apprentice under legendary composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in Cambridge. After weeks of being put down by his mentor, Ayrs scores the "Cloud Atlas Sextet" symphony, for which Frobisher immediately wants to take credit. Follows the template of "Amadeus" (1984).

    3) 1973: Political Mystery: Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is an investigative reporter in San Francisco, who tries living up to her father's journalistic example. While trapped in an elevator, she meets a man who helps her uncover an oil industry scam to discourage nuclear power. As she peels back the layers, her own life becomes at risk. Follows the template of "All the President's Men" (1976), "The China Syndrome" (1979) and "Michael Clayton" (2007).

    4) 2012: Comedy: A band of criminals bursts into the bathroom of London book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) as he sits on the john, demanding they collect on an old debt. He seeks financial help from his brother, who in an act of revenge forces him into an old folks home in the English countryside, under the iron-fist watch of its lead caretaker (Hugo Weaving). Follows the template of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), with a hint of "The Big Lebowski" (1998).

    5) 2144: "Big Brother" Science Fiction: Jumping ahead to futuristic South Korea, the capital of Seoul has been destroyed by the rising tide of climate change. In its place, mankind has built a dystopian Neo Seoul (blending Keanu Reeves and the idea of a "new soul"), where a fleet of cyborg women serve the materialistic consumers. Like Ridley Scott's "Replicants," these cyborgs are known as "Fabricants," implanted with computer chips in their necks that shock them if they revolt. Tired of oppression, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) stages a revolution. Follows the template of "Metropolis" (1927), "Soylent Green" (1973), "Blade Runner" (1982), "Brazil" (1985) and "The Matrix Revolutions" (2003).

    6) 2321: Other-World Fantasy: Foreshadowed by the above nuclear threat, the final thread transports us to a post-apocalyptic age, a century after "the fall," where humans live in a renewed primitive state, speaking the language of "True True" mixed with the remnants of futuristic technology. Hunter and gatherer Zachry (Tom Hanks) battles the inner demons of a "The Passion of the Christ" devil figure, while being contacted by a Princess Leia figure named Meronym (Halle Berry), one of the sole survivors of Earth's advanced civilization. Follows the template of "Planet of the Apes" (1968), "The New World" (2005), "Apocalypto" (2006) and "Avatar" (2009).

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