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Senior Correspondent

“Cloud Atlas”: Did the filmmakers even know what they wanted to say?

“Cloud Atlas”: Did the filmmakers even know what they wanted to say?

“CLOUD ATLAS” My rating: B- (Opening wide on Oct. 26)
172 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Cloud Atlas” held my interest for nearly three hours.

This is a remarkable fact, given that the film engaged my emotions hardly at all.

Furthermore, I haven’t got a clue about just what the makers of this sci-fi/fantasy epic, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, were trying to accomplish with this century-jumping, makeup-heavy extravaganza. Didn’t love it. Didn’t hate it. Found it interesting but frustrating.

Based on David Mitchell’s humongous (and humongously complicated) novel, this film features six stories from different epochs all knotted together in a complex tapestry.

In the 1840s a young man, played byJim Sturgess, goes to the South Pacific as a slave trader and falls prey to an exotic disease; on the voyage back to America he is treated by an eccentric doctor, played byTom Hanks, whose medicine only makes him sicker, and is befriended by a stowaway slave, played by David Gyasi.

In the 1930s a young musician, played by Ben Whishaw, leaves his male lover, played byJames D’Arcy, to assist an elderly composer, Jim Broadbent, who hasn’t produced anything in years.

In the early ‘70s a crusading reporter, Halle Berry, finds herself stalked by a professional killer when she delves into safety issues at a nuclear generating plant near San Francisco.

In the present a failed book publisher (Broadbent again) is committed to a nursing home by his brother. With the other elderly “inmates” plots an escape.

In a “Blade Runner”-ish future set in Korea a clone-like, child-like “fabricant” (Doona Bae) and her near-identical “sisters” work as pre-programmed Geishas. She’s kidnapped by a revolutionary (Sturgess) whose cabal believes she holds the secret to overthrowing the existing totalitarian order.

Finally, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry (Hanks) lives in a primitive village plagued by cannibalistic raiders and must deal with a technologically sophisticated visitor (Berry) who wants him to lead her to an ancient scientific facility high on a mountain.

These stories don’t unfold one at a time (although it would be interesting to see the film re-edited that way). Rather, the screenplay is constantly jumping from one era to another, so that all six tales are coming at us all the time.

The various stories are tied together thematically, most of them are about people who are in one way or another prisoners or slaves and seeking freedom and salvation, and by the fact that just about everyone in the cast (among them Hugo Weaving playing a multitude of bad guys, Keith David, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant) assume different roles in the various stories.

This turns “Cloud Atlas” into a sort of giant “Where’s Waldo?” where you find yourself trying to recognize familiar faces distorted by elaborate wigs, tattoos, contact lenses and prosthetics that allow the cast members to appear in the guises of various races and even of a different sex. (Anybody out there remember John Huston’s “The List of Adrian Messenger”?)

The real star of “Cloud Atlas” may be the monumental moviemaking technology itself.  I’m not talking just about the special effects, cinematography and costumes, although all are excellent, but by elements like editing. At one point the Wachowskis, of the “Matrix” series, and Tykwer, “Run Lola Run,"  weave together chase sequences from several of their stories for an effect not unlike the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream passage from “Inception.” It’s intoxicating just on the level of narrative and visual verve.

In other ways “Cloud Atlas” fumbles its execution. In the two futuristic stories the characters speak in a sort of patois (and often in muffled tones) that makes understanding the dialogue extremely difficult. How about some subtitles?

And for all the amazing makeup, some of the effects just look cheesy. Attempts to make Caucasian actors appear Asian, and vice versa, fail to convince … although there are a couple of transformations so complete audiences will gasp and laugh when, during the closing credits, we discover which actors played which characters.

So there it is. “Cloud Atlas” is sort of like a celluloid acid trip. But does it add up to anything? Did the filmmakers even know what they wanted to say?

I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

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