At the beginning of Cloud Atlas Ben Wishaw’s Robert puts a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Three tortuous hours later I wanted to do the same.
Cloud Atlas was on a long list of ‘unfilmable’ books that have become reality on the screen, but unlike Life Of Pi, which garnered many an Oscar nomination, this proves that the novel should have stayed just that. On screen it’s a complete mess – sprawling, often dull, frequently incomprehensible, utterly humourless and with a vaguely eco-message that is presumably supposed to save its faults – it doesn’t.
There are six strands – six! – in this headache-inducing epic, all encountering varying degrees of injustice. Ben Wishaw’s Robert is a student who gets a job with an old, fading composer (Broadbent) helping him write a new piece. However when the old man blatantly steals the piece and threatens to reveal Robert’s homosexuality, Robert seems doomed.
Then there is Halle Berry’s 1970s eco-warrior journalist, trying to reveal the dangers of a nuclear plant run by the seedy and dangerous Hugh Grant. The British actor keeps threatening to retire, and on this evidence the sooner he does the better.
Berry’s other main character – all the actors play multiple roles under make-up – is some sort of scientist from the future helping out Tom Hanks’ dying Hawaii tribe, who keep being attacked by a vicious gang led by Grant again. If this is supposed to be hilarious it’s successful, but Berry and Hanks are so po-faced throughout I suspect we’re meant to take it seriously, including Grant as a savagem knife-wielding nutter.
There’s a slavery story involving a stowaway on a ship, nowhere near as entertaining as Django Unchained, and the tale of what appears to be a Yo Sushi worker in futuristic Seoul who escapes the system and tries to stick it to the man – nowhere near as powerful as Blade Runner.
The stories flit from one to the other, coming to no great conclusions apart from “everything affects everybody” and other such tedious clichés. At one point a character is told his anti-slavery stance is a drop in the ocean, he replies “an ocean is made up of many drops”. If you can stomach that sort of fifth-grade hippie dialogue without laughing this may be the film for you. Personally I felt my soul slipping under the chair with every passing minute.
Talking of which, virtually all of this season’s Oscar films are well over two hours, and this creeps up to nearly three. Since when did films get so long? Over Christmas the BBC aired Of Human Bondage, a film based on a 650-page book which came in at 85 minutes – it was superb, well acted, atmospheric and powerful, and missed nothing from the book. In the hands of the Wachowskis it would probably nudge four hours, and be none the better for it.
It’s the tone of Could Atlas that is so problematic – one minute it’s deadly serious, with Tom Hanks discussing the death of the world in a barely intelligible language, the next minute Jim Broadbent is trying to escape from an old people’s home in a scene not out of place in a Carry On movie. The actors all seem to take it so seriously, apart from Hugo Weaving, who at least looks like he’s having fun playing various Nazis and nasties. Everyone else look like they can’t wait to go home.
The gimmick the film is selling itself on is that actors play different roles, so we can all have fun trying to work out who they all are. The trouble is the stories are so banal we don’t care, and the make-up is truly terrible. Berry’s facial make-up as a futuristic voodoo woman looks like a particularly bad episode of Star Trek, and Hanks as a Maori just looks like he needs a wash. Whishaw is in his comfort zone as a gay student and at least brings some dignity to the role, his battles with ageing musician Broadbent have some conflict and drama.
In 2006 Darren Aronofsky released The Fountain, a multi-layered strand of eco-bullshit in which Hugh Jackman floated through space in a giant lightbulb and Rachel Weisz played the Queen of Spain. It was nonsense of course, played in one cinema in London for a week and disappeared, never to be heard of again. That had three strands and was 96 minutes long – two plus points over this dreadful car crash of a film.
Overall verdict: Indulgent, bloated, incomprehensible, tedious mess of a film with a cast queuing up to give po-faced, stiff performances. There is some decent acting in there somewhere but is it worth wading through three hours of utter nonsense to find it? I’d say not.
Reviewer: Mike Martin