When an author calls a book “unfilmable,” it takes some serious chutzpah to raise a challenge. Directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (of the Matrix
franchise) and Tom Twyker (who directed Run Lola Run
) have gall to spare. Their sprawling adaptation of David Mitchell’s 500-plus-page novel Cloud Atlas
is a marathon masquerade ball of six different plots, between which the film repeatedly hops. The dizzying structure spreads the viewer’s loyalties thinner than water: With so many plots and characters to follow, none end up demanding our emotional investment. Consider three of the six tales: A young Brit (Ben Whishaw) works in the 1930s as an amanuensis to a grouchy composer (Jim Broadbent). A cheeky publisher (Broadbent again, even better) is confined to an old-folks home in modern-day London. In a faraway, post-apocalyptic future, a scraggly goatherd (Tom Hanks) and a traveler (Halle Berry) unite against bloodthirsty villains. Perhaps plonking the actors in numerous roles, across all six stories, was supposed to help unite the largely disparate threads, or at least drive home the film’s precious platitudes about the interconnectivity of all lives. But the actors are cloaked in such ridiculous makeup that the stunt is more distracting than cunning (Berry, for example, dons whiteface as a Jewish aristocrat), and save for a few sly winks at some of the gender swaps, the cast remains determinedly solemn-faced. As a wild-haired Broadbent and his gang of doddering friends plot a jailbreak from their retirement home, they provide much-needed comic relief, but the film quickly returns to labored philosophizing. In trying to speak about everything—the fight against oppression, the thirst for freedom, the pursuit of truth, the triumph of good over evil—Cloud Atlas
ends up saying very little.