By Robert Horton, Herald movie critic
In defense of “Cloud Atlas,” let’s say that this is the kind of heady, nonformulaic film everybody’s always saying they wish Hollywood would make. It’s three hours long and complicated, and it wants to engage important ideas along the way.
It also has quite an ingenious structure (the film cuts among six stories as it hurtles along), which is intriguing to watch play out: It’s as ambitious as D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” and has a similar structure. Very strong cast, too.
Yessir, this is a movie that wants to say something. And what it has to say is a rather large load of flapdoodle.
Perhaps the novel by David Mitchell handles these ideas with more grace. But when “Cloud Atlas” the movie tries to say things about how different generations of lives are connected, or the principle of eternal recurrence, or the possibility that we’ve learned lessons in past lives, it generally falls on its face.
Among the story lines: a 19th-century Pacific Ocean crossing, a 1930s struggle between an English composer and his assistant, an incident surrounding nuclear safety in 1973 and a present-day slapstick episode about a book publisher.
There are two futuristic ones, too: one in a sleek Korea where a totalitarian state indulges consumerism and one in a post-apocalyptic jungle.
By the way, despite the film’s high-mindedness, it does reaffirm that all stories, past and future, will play better if they have shoot-outs and car chases.
The movie was written and directed (in a rare example of three-handing it) by the “Matrix” team of Andy and Lana Wachowski, and “Run Lola Run” maker Tom Tykwer. In case you’re not confused enough, Lana Wachowski was previously known as Larry Wachowski, before a sex-reassignment process.
Transformation is a big issue in the theme of “Cloud Atlas.” The filmmakers have cast actors in multiple roles through these different stories; we are meant to draw conclusions about the migration of souls, and perhaps how a person’s essence becomes more elevated as things go along.
This, at least, gives actors a chance to get loose. Tom Hanks, in particular, has a great deal of fun playing mostly roguish or cowardly types, and I assume we’re meant to see his final incarnation as the culmination of a movement upward in life.
Halle Berry plays earnest characters, Jim Broadbent (he steals the movie) a series of eccentrics, and Jim Sturgess a more saintly type. There’s some genuinely stirring work from Ben Whislaw (the star of Tykwer’s “Perfume”) and Doona Bae, the latter a moving presence as a futuristic rebel.
Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving re-appear in smaller bits. Sometimes men play women, and vice versa (I think). Hugh Grant plays nothing but scoundrels, of course, including a war-painted barbarian warrior of the future, the last role you ever thought you’d see Hugh Grant play.
The viewer will be distracted by the various layers of make-up on display here, possibly to the detriment of the film. But “Cloud Atlas” is in trouble already: not from the multi-tale format, which at least is interesting to watch, but from the ladled-on inspirational messages contained throughout.
The movie’s not boring, and you can see some filmmaking skill on display. But by the time Hanks and Berry were making a “Lord of the Rings” trek and engaging in a babytalk invented language, I was rolling my eyes. An A for effort, but the aim is way, way off.
“Cloud Atlas” (2 stars)
Six different stories weave together in this three-hour epic about the transmigration of souls, or the eternal recurrence, or past lives. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry lead a cast of actors in multiple roles, although they labor to bring coherence to the ladled-on inspirational messages strewn throughout this complicated load of flapdoodle.
Rated: R for nudity, violence, language.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville.