Cloud Atlas

When early in the forties a young Greek director called Elias Kazantzoglou showed up at a major Hollywood studio, the studio head (one imagines him sending cigar smoke the way of the hopeful visitor), advised him on a name change as a first step. “How about Cézanne?” the studio head asked. The director who would go down in film history as Elia Kazan demurred. “There already is a Cézanne,” he said. The studio head, surprised, accepted to go with the name Elia Kazan. This anecdote serves to remind us that Hollywood hasn’t much changed. Despite its history as purveyor of a magnificent portfolio of masterpieces, there’s still much of that pretension based on no culture. Case in point, “Cloud Atlas.”

To my chagrin, I’ve just wasted three perfectly good hours on this bloated, bombastic and ultimately empty movie that had me baffled as to what exactly I was watching. Not having read the book on which this opus is based, I don’t know what the original concept was but image-wise, I certainly received more than what I had bargained for. Wrapped in one package were snippets of “Star Wars,” “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter,” “The Matrix” plus “Master and Commander,” Hitchcock shorts (remember the one in the tropics where a man is told of a parasite worming its way through his brain?) and a slew of other references, peppered with CG spaceships and battles from a hundred video games—in other words, exhausted material.

The cast, which a tremendous makeup job transforms from one context to another, features serviceable Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent—this last as always stealing every scene he’s in. In a complicated chronology which I soon gave up following are episodes set in different periods of time including the future in which some, more than others, seem to be related or a continuation of each other. The bravura editing pings and pongs across stories that all stress the ultimate failure of repression when brave souls defy rules, often at a high cost. There’s the story of an ambitious young composer, that of the lawyer visiting Africa, of the reverted-to-savagery tribes, of the visitors from outer space come to save humanity by taking it to a more peaceful planet. As in recent Terrence Malick films, we’re treated to metaphysics 101 and actual lines such as this: “When a door closes, another one opens.”

This failed attempt by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski brother-sister set to convey something–but what?–falls flat and had me wondering, like the recent “Lincoln,” if Hollywood had run its course. What can I say, I miss Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, a Space Odyssey” and the days when enigmatic films left us baffled but satisfied.

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