Up in the 'Clouds' of high-concept imagination

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Photo - This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Halle Berry, left, and David Keith in a scene from "Cloud Atlas," an epic spanning centuries and genres. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Reiner Bajo)
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Halle Berry, left, and David Keith in a scene from "Cloud Atlas," an epic spanning centuries and genres. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Reiner Bajo)
Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

"Cloud Atlas" is being hailed as the most audacious film of the year.

In its nearly three hours of running time, the film travels through about five centuries of chronological time -- though it doesn't do so chronologically. It moves back and forth, from the Pacific Islands in the 19th century, to England in the early 20th, to America in the late 20th, back to England in the 21st, and Asia and America in a distant future.

It's certainly an ambitious film. "Cloud Atlas" takes as its themes the interconnectedness of humanity throughout its history -- and the never-ending fight between freedom and slavery.

On screen
'Cloud Atlas'
2.5 out of 4 stars
Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess
Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Rated: R for violence, language, sexuality/nudity, and some drug use
Running time: 172 minutes

Yet, there's something strangely hollow about this overflowing film. Its magic is gripping for the first couple of hours. Then one begins to realize that the film, more than anything else, is a set of gimmicks, carefully laid over stories that are, at their core, disappointingly melodramatic and overly familiar.

"Cloud Atlas" opens with tantalizing bits of the six storylines. "Ancestry howling at you," an old Tom Hanks declares in the piece set in the furthest future. Hanks is also a suspicious doctor administering to a young American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) on an 1849 voyage, a hotel registrar in 1936 Cambridge, England, a nuclear scientist in 1973 San Francisco, an Irish bad-boy novelist in present-day London and a younger version of himself in Hawaii in a far-flung future. In some of these stories, he falls for Halle Berry. She's a German Jew in 1936, a journalist in 1973 and a member of some sort of elite group in the future.

Before that future is the one we see in 2144 Neo Seoul, in which beautiful Asian girls give new meaning to the phrase "customer service." Here, Sturgess reappears as an Asian freedom fighter who takes a strange interest in one of the girls, Korean actress Doona Bae. Part of the fun -- and it's gimmicky fun -- is trying to recognize these famous faces in their different guises. It's unlikely you'll catch them all.

Andy and Lana Wachowski, siblings most famous for "The Matrix," direct the future-set stories, while German director Tom Tykwer handles the more familiar locales. They work together so well because they all love an excitingly paced cinema based on quick cuts.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by David Mitchell, "Cloud Atlas" sometimes veers into eye-rolling territory with its grand statements -- but fortunately, it works more often than not.

The best plot lines, though, end up being the least edgy, like the 1936 Cambridge story starring Ben Whishaw as a young composer trapped by his various feelings for an older, grander, but perhaps less-talented mentor, played by Jim Broadbent. Broadbent is also great in the 2012 story as a man cleverly punished for his adultery by his brother, played by a nearly unrecognizable, aged Hugh Grant.

Too much of "Cloud Atlas" seems unoriginal. But we're never likely to tire of tales of human beings struggling -- sometimes successfully, all too often not -- for the freedom we all crave. Here, at least, "Cloud Atlas" manages to connect with a very wide audience.

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
The Washington Examiner