Cloud Atlas, the post-global epic that writer-directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have composed from David Mitchell's much-admired novel, is a largely faithful adaptation. It's visually sumptuous and often tenderly acted. It's also 165 inert minutes of proof that what we talk about when we talk about unfilmable is not can but should. The gulf between the two has rarely been wider than it is here, and the answer is no, no, no.
Not for the reasons you'd expect, though — that being the usual elitist complaint that books are for thinkers and movies are for ... other people. The Wachowskis (creators of the Matrix saga) and Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have no trouble filling the screen: They find the novel's themes and even articulate some of its best lines. But as admirable as their ambition is, the result is something like an endless CGI-and-makeup demo reel. You leave it wondering not where the novel's soul went, but whether it had one at all.
Mitchell's diagonal cross-section of human ambition and its byproducts (especially human bondage) is also a witty deconstruction of fiction's evolution. Its widely varied sections visit Defoe and Joyce, wave at the oral tradition, and take a spin through detective pulp just for kicks. The characters span generations and civilizations, and the language rolls fluidly from the melodic to the guttural. It's for readers wanting a flamboyant challenge, yet even within its airtight architecture there's room to breathe.
Onscreen, though, Cloud Atlas leaks, loosing wafts of hot philosophical gas from a balloon shaped like Tom Hanks. Per the script's design and like most every other actor here, Hanks plays multiple parts, the better to underscore — and underline and highlight and circle — that the Wachowskis and Tykwer have amplified the novel's reincarnation motif. Clever! Also: really unfortunate.
Listen, I'm a Hanks lifer, raised on Bosom Buddies and giving no quarter to haters. For the decade that he was the face of commercial Hollywood, starting in 1993, his skill was transparent, self-evident. But success has a way of way of boring people, and so the past decade has given us a different Tom Hanks — one who likes wigs and false teeth. This was one thing when the goal was Alec Guinness pastiche, as in the Coen brothers' ill-advised remake of The Ladykillers (in which Hanks, at least, enjoyed a swell party). It is another here, when the dentures and the bald caps and the Maori tattoos insist in vain to be taken seriously.
The cleverness in casting our most enduring Everyman as every man is self-evident. But typecasting is a bitch, and Hanks' type is not every soldier or every astronaut. His type is one virtuous soldier, one virtuous astronaut. And Mitchell isn't much interested in virtue as we demand it onscreen. Cloud Atlas posits an axis of Samaritanism (that Hanks specialty) and an axis of greed, but it scarcely addresses goodness and badness beyond having a few quite good people arrayed against a welter of pretty bad people.
On that grid we meet Hanks and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant and Halle Berry, among others, as each portrays a plurality of people moving up and down their assigned axes. Whereas Forrest Gump — the red-state literary fantasy adapted by that other cold-eyed technocrat, Robert Zemeckis — gave us one incurious man galumphing through the decades, Cloud Atlas serves up several versions of the same clueless wanderers, all at the mercy of pattern.
This is bad news for Hugo Weaving (a brilliant stage actor who deserves a better movie career), who must play an evil phantasm and an evil assassin and not much else. And it's not great for Broadbent, who widens his big blue British eyes when he's innocent and narrows them when he's not. In a movie that intends spiritual enormity, he's looped into a never-ending Benny Hill episode.
But Hanks is Hanks, so his peeps get to climb out of the ooze now and then. His 19th century ship's doctor and Dickensian innkeeper and murderous writer exist in the book, but they feel tacked on here, a sop to a star eager to geek out. And when the virtuous figure his contract demands shows up — he's some kind of goatherd in a post-meltdown Hawaii — glimpsing again the Hanks of Cast Away ought to feel pretty good. Not so. Hanks with a machete, a limited vocabulary and a Name of the Rose wig plays like an awful joke. Nobody asked to see Tompocalypto.
The Wachowski-Tykwer Cloud Atlas supposes that we're always an X or an O in a game of cosmic tic-tac-toe, that it's just a question of getting the center square once every few generations. Mitchell's novel isn't necessarily much deeper, but it's also not just about reincarnation. As one of its tales moves into the next, with each subsequent narrator considering the previous one, we figure out that the truth of repetition isn't just mortal but also mythic, in the way stories are handed across generations. Conveying that here means a reliance on narration, on voiceover, on everything in movies that is lateral and of a more recognizable grammar.
And yet there's something thrilling about a big-canvas work that asks not for your usual suspension of disbelief but for the resumption of belief — in a greater power, in an order, in the thrill of upending that order once an age or so. That's not a bargain most audiences are willing to strike, even those prepared by the memory of all the Wachowskis' Matrix philosophical hoo-hah. "I'm glad I didn't pay money to see that," clucked several people leaving the Cloud Atlas screening I attended. And for a moment, as much as I disliked Cloud Atlas, I beamed these people an ugly mental retort: You just didn't get it.
But you don't need to get Cloud Atlas for it to hold you permanently at bay — or to feel like you've seen it all before. The human story, to paraphrase one of the voices here, is one of hunger. Maybe, but there's a lot more chewing than nutrition in Cloud Atlas, more appetite than satisfaction.