Aiming high

Updated: 2013-01-26 08:06

By Elizabeth Kerr (HK Edition)

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 Aiming high

Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona) flees her Neo-Seoul oppressors in 2144. Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer's Cloud Atlas

 Aiming high

An aging composer (Jim Broadbent) hires a young man (Ben Whishaw) to help with masterpiece in 1936 Cambridge - to dire effect

 Aiming high

In one of six roles, Tom Hanks plays Zachry helps a Prescient (Halle Berry) locate an ancient temple in the post-apocalyptic 24th century in Cloud Atlas

 Aiming high

A shady doctor (Hanks) almost gets the better of an idealistic notary (Jim Sturgess) crossing the Pacific in 1849

Aiming high

Another award-winning, unfilmmable novel gets filmed and winds up the year's greatest experiment. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Remember back when Life of Pi came out and we talked about how the book upon which the film was based was considered unfilmmable? Well, here's another one. Spanning several centuries from 1849 to a retrograde 24th century, Cloud Atlas is the kind of ambitious, audacious epic of big ideas that rarely gets made these days. It's as if no one dares ask audiences to put any thought into unconventional storytelling and so no one's even tried. Cloud Atlas is an independent film with a fat studio budget and a trio (!) of directors at the helm unafraid of aiming high and who hit their targets as often as they miss by a mile.

With touches of Amistad, Amadeus, Blade Runner (natch) and a whole lot of prosthetics and CGI, the film abandons David Mitchell's 2004 Booker Prize and Nebula Award winner's back to front to back narrative for a more traditionally edited bag, making for demanding early going. But this version of the storytelling is, admittedly, more streamlined, creating a large tapestry rather than six short films. The downside is that it disrupts extended empathy with the characters, often taking viewers out of the moment in the services of forward momentum and suspense. Nonetheless, Cloud Atlas is always engrossing and an admirable experiment - and a pretty good game of "spot the star" underneath the latex.

After Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer quickly establish the timelines and major characters, they really get down to business. Parallel themes and plot threads span out from a single birthmark that connects the main characters through time and space. Cloud Atlas' central idea is that humanity is in a constant state of rebirth, both physical and behavioral, destined to repeat itself. Each of the six stories - or clouds in the atlas - fully commits to its time period but the emotions and motivations remain the same: the penchants for greed and oppression, the willingness for sacrifice and the search for redemption.

We begin with an old man (Tom Hanks) telling a campfire story that leads to the next, which leads to the next and so on: A notary (Jim Sturgess) becomes a devout abolitionist while on a19th century slaving ship; a pre-WWII composer (Ben Whishaw) becomes embroiled in a crime of musical passion and pride in Cambridge; in 1970s San Francisco, a journalist (Halle Berry) investigates corruption at an energy company; in present day London an aging publisher (Jim Broadbent, fortunate to feature in the single best episode in the film) gets committed to a nursing home against his will; in a futuristic Neo-Seoul, an indentured clone (Bae Doona, second bed segment) seeks actualization; and in primitive post-apocalyptic tribal Hawaii a peaceful farmer (Hanks) guides a Prescient (Berry) to the temples that hold humanity's history.

If nothing else Cloud Atlas is a technical marvel with nearly flawless editing that moves one scene to the next gracefully, which goes a long way to making the film work as well as it does. And the trio of directors' decision to recycle the cast brings a level of thematic coherence into play. They cross gender (Hugo Weaving plays an Asian man and a female nurse), age (James D'Arcy plays the same character at two ages) and race (Berry plays a white woman and an old Asian man) in a way that binds the ideas together, but which also creates a game of "spot the star" underneath the latex that can be distracting. But to the film's credit the effects never dip into offensive and, though they flirt with gimmickry, do indeed ram the metaphysics home. Cloud Atlas isn't the masterwork fans of the book (myself included) probably hoped it would be, but it's such a valiant effort with more than its share of bright spots - outstanding big screen visuals, strong performances, a lack of condescension to its audience - that its faults can easily be forgiven.

Cloud Atlas opened in Hong Kong on Thursday.

(HK Edition 01/26/2013 page4)