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Ambitious, genre-jumping 'Cloud Atlas' is epic tale difficult to invest in

REVIEW: Not quite soaring into the heavens, but not exactly crash-landing either, "Cloud Atlas" is an impressively mounted, emotionally stilted adaptation of British author David Mitchell’s bestselling novel. Written and directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, this hugely ambitious, genre-jumping, century-hopping epic is parts "Babel" and "Tree of Life," parts "Blade Runner," "Amistad" and "Amadeus," with added doses of gore, CGI, New Age kitsch, and more prosthetics than a veterans hospital in wartime. One of the priciest independent films ever made (on a purported budget of $100 million), "Cloud Atlas" will rely on its chameleon cast to scale a 3-hour running time and reach the box office heights needed for this massive international co-production.

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Mitchel’s 500-plus page book garnered several literary prizes and a huge following after it was first published in 2004, but many would have said that the novel’s unique structure–where multiple stories in different time periods are told chronologically from past to future and then back again—was impossible to adapt to the big screen.

The Wachowskis (with Lana receiving her first screen credit here) and Tykwer ("Run Lola Run," "The International") figured out they could streamline the narrative by cross-cutting between the different epochs and casting the same actors in a multitude of roles. Although this helps to make the whole pill easier to swallow, it also makes it harder to invest in each narrative, while seeing the actors transformed from old to young, black to white, and occasionally gender-bended from male to female, tends to dilute the overall dramatic tension.

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving star in a film for the directors of "The Matrix," about how a person's actions can ripple across time to affect many different people. Opens Oct. 26.

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A brief prologue features an old man, Zachry (Tom Hanks), telling a story around a campfire, and from hereon in the film reveals how each plotline is in fact a tale told—or read or seen in a movie—by the next one (this is also a process used in the book). 

They are, in ascending order: an 1849 Pacific sea voyage where a crooked doctor (Hanks), a novice sailor (Jim Sturgess) and an escaped slave (David Gyasi) cross paths; a saga of dualing composers (Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw) set in 1936 Cambridge; a San Francisco-set 70s thriller about a rogue journalist (Halle Berry) taking on a nuclear power chief (Hugh Grant); a 2012-set comedy about a down-on-his-luck London book editor (Broadbent); a sci-fi love story about an indentured wage slave (Doona Bae) and the rebel (Sturgess) who rescues her, set in “Neo Seoul” in 2144; and a 24th century-set tale of tribal warfare, where Zachry teams up with a visiting explorer (Berre) in search of a groundbreaking, planet-shaking discovery.

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Despite their myriad differences, the half-dozen plot strands are coherently tied together via sharp editing by Alexander Berner (Resident Evil), who focuses on each separate story early on, and then mixes them up in several crescendo-building montages where movement and imagery are matched together across time. As if such links weren’t explicit enough, the characters all share a common birthmark, and have a tendency to repeat the same feel-good proverbs (ex. “By each crime, and every kindness, we build our future”) at various intervals.

Yet while the directorial trio does their best to ensure that things flow together smoothly enough and that their underlying message—basically, no matter what the epoch, we are all of the same soul and must fight for freedom—is heard extremely loud and incredibly clear, there are so many characters and plots tossed about that no one storyline feels altogether satisfying. As history repeats itself and the same master vs. slave scenario keeps reappearing, everything gets homogenized into a blandish whole, the impact of each story softened by the constant need to connect the dots.

Of all the pieces of the puzzle, the ones that feel the most effective are the 70s investigative drama, which has shades of Alan Pakula and Fincher’s "Zodiac," and the futuristic thriller, where the Wachowskis show they can still come up with some nifty set-pieces, even if the production design (by Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup) and costumes (by Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud) feel closer to the artsy stylings of Wong Kar Wai’s "2046" than to the leather Lollapalooza that is "The Matrix" trilogy.

Perhaps such choices go hand in hand with a movie that yearns to be both arthouse and blockbuster, yet can’t seem to make up its mind. Thus, the decision to utilize the same actors helps to visually link up the plots, but is so conspicuous that it distracts from the drama. It’s hard to take Berry seriously when she’s been anatomically morphed into a Victorian housewife (she’s much better as the crusading reporter), or to swallow Hanks as a futuristic Polynesian tribesmen with a face tattoo and a funny way of talking (he says things like “Tell me the true true.”)

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Broadbent’s experience in spectacles like "Moulin Rouge!" and "Topsy-Turvy" makes him better equipped for such shape-shifting, and his present day scenario is both the silliest and in some ways, the most touching. But it’s Hugo Weaving who seems to have more fun than anyone, especially when he plays a nasty retirement home supervisor reminiscent of Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," and does so by getting into full-out drag. It’s an effect that’s amusingly disarming—not to mention evocative of Lana Wachowski’s recent backstory—in a film that aims for the clouds but is often weighed down by its own lofty intentions.