Tom Hanks has appeared in over 70 movies. In the sweeping epic Cloud Atlas, he nearly doubles his career character count. Hanks is just one of many actors who dons different personas and elaborate makeup to play a series of characters in what can only be described as one of the most ambitious and riskiest films in years.
Cloud Atlas could have so easily been a disaster. The movie is, in its simplest form (if it has a simplest form), a drama about love, relationships and life. It's also a movie that weaves together several different stories that not only span centuries but also shifts between being a period drama, modern day investigative thriller, futuristic action flick and more. Oh, and it is three hours long.
I've never read the novel upon which the movie is based, but anecdotally I've heard bewilderment from fans toward how such a book could be adapted into a movie less than ten hours long. Four years after the disaster that was Speed Racer, the Wachowskis have redeemed themselves, as Cloud Atlas is one of the better movies of 2012.
Also co-directed by Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas is an elaborate, beautiful film that mesmerizes from start to finish. Despite featuring a complex array of stories and characters, the movie is not a mind bender. Early on, one of the characters narrates to the audience, in more eloquent words, "to be patient as everything will make sense soon enough." It does.
Hanks is terrific, even when he's hamming it up as a big city criminal with anger issues. Jim Broadbent is great as usual. Doona Bae, who plays the film's most critical role, is stellar. Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Keith David and James D'Arcy also turn in fine performances. Susan Sarandon is good in a limited role, and Hugh Grant is simply fun to watch (his most memorable role is as a quintessential Hugh Grant character: a jungle cannibal). I'll even give compliments to Halle Berry, who delivers her first good performance since 2001's Monster Ball.
Some stories and characters work better than others, which is understandable given there are approximately 273 combinations. A few character arcs are goofier than the rest and, while entertaining, don't mesh as well. The nursing home subplot is funny but ultimately forgettable; the arc set in the 1970's is intriguing, until it ends suddenly without wrapping up completely. Hugo Weaving is largely wasted, reduced to forgettable villain roles. The only part I truly didn't like, nor understood, was the devilish and imaginary creature he plays in the distant future.
But in the scheme of a sweeping three-hour film, those issues are minor. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have pulled off what some apparently would consider the impossible, and it's a pretty stunning result. Cloud Atlas isn't perfect - and some people will have more issues with the faults than others - but it is very good. Multiple Tom Hanks do not hurt, either.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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