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'Cloud Atlas' review: A historic mess

* (out of four)

Hokum of monumental proportions is still hokum. Watch the 6-minute “Cloud Atlas” trailer about 30 times and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to sit through this epic disaster, which never bores but never rewards attention either.

Pacing the nearly three-hour film as if it were a teaser for itself, Chicago-native writers/directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) don’t deliver a single powerful sequence or profound moment. They spell out every theme in the clunkiest way possible. The most egregious examples include, “What is an ocean if not a multitude of drops?” and “We must all fight and, if necessary, die to teach people the truth.”

“Cloud Atlas” slices and dices David Mitchell’s novel, taking place in the past, present and future. That stretches from 1849 in the Pacific islands to 1973 San Francisco to 2144 in Neo Seoul, which unfortunately is not home to D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and the rest of the late ’90s/early ’00s neo-soul movement.

In the film, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Keith David and others play several different characters. Many of the performances (and the required makeup) are as embarrassing as the script. Several non-white actors appear in whiteface; at one point Weaving plays a diabolical female nurse and Hanks looks like he came from the Shire in “The Lord of the Rings.” None of the characters or emotions registers because of the film’s structure, shifting in time and place roughly every minute. That’s not a meaningful tour, just a disorienting stunt that puts history on a wheel and spins without purpose.

At a glance, it seems like the film—which in some ways takes an inverse approach to the similarly shallow material of “The Tree of Life” while throwing in “Babel” and “Blade Runner”—weaves an ambitious, complex tapestry. Yet not even the notion of supreme love connects when people spend so much more time saying love this and love that but not fleshing out that bond between them.

“Cloud Atlas” is a patchwork quilt of generalities, a Frankenstein’s monster of bite-sized wisdom delivered as if it were the first time anyone dared speak about such concepts as courage and faith.

Perhaps some people will take the pretentious “Cloud Atlas” as an ambitious sermon, spreading its wings to encompass the fabric of the universe. While the movie does more than most others, it doesn't do anything better. I found its take on human nature and behavior remarkably superficial, and its presentation of racism cartoonish. The message about minorities is insulting and reductive, adding up to, “They’re good, simple people who will come through if you just give ‘em a chance!”

Regarding the scope of existence and how “Our lives are not our own,” the big message is that there are always good people and bad people, good things and bad things. Also, rebellion and revolution take courage. Who knew?

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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