Great news, you guys: The Matrix IV is out, and it's way better than Matrix: Revolutions. It's Matrix: Gumpalutions.
That's the easiest shorthand for Cloud Atlas, the Tom Hanks-starring, post-global epic that co-writers and –directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski have composed from novelist David Mitchell's much-admired book. It's a largely faithful adaptation, visually sumptuous and often tenderly acted. It's also 165 inert minutes of proof that what we talk about when we talk about unfilmable is not can but should. The gulf between the two has rarely been wider than it is here, and the answer is no, no, no.
Not for the reason you'd expect, though, the usual elitist complaint that books are for thinkers and movies are for ... other people. The Wachowskis and Tykwer show no trouble filling the screen (not just dressing it). They find the novel's themes and even articulate some of its best lines. But the result is something like an endless CGI-and-makeup demo reel, and you leave it wondering not where the novel's soul went but whether it had one at all.
Mitchell's diagonal cross-section of human ambition and its byproducts (especially human bondage) is also a witty deconstruction of fiction's evolution. Its widely varied sections visit Defoe and Joyce, wave at the oral tradition, and let detective pulp sit on your face for a little while, just for kicks. The characters span generations and civilizations, and the language rolls fluidly from the melodic to the guttural. It's purpose-built for readers wanting a flamboyant challenge, yet even within its airtight architecture there's room to breathe.
Onscreen, though, Cloud Atlas leaks, loosing wafts of hot philosophical gas from a balloon shaped like Tom Hanks. See, Hanks, per the script's design and like most every other actor here, plays multiple parts, the better to underscore — and underline and highlight and circle — that the Wachowskis and Tykwer have amplified the novel's reincarnation motif. Clever! Also: really unfortunate.
Listen, I'm a Hanks lifer, raised on Bosom Buddies and giving no quarter to haters. For the decade that he was the face of commercial Hollywood, starting in 1993, he happened also to be so solid a performer that his skill was transparent. But success has a way of boring people, and so the past decade has given us a different Tom Hanks — one who likes wigs and false teeth. This was one thing when the goal was Alec Guinness pastiche, as in the Coen brothers' ill-advised remake of The Ladykillers (in which Hanks, at least, enjoyed a swell party). It is another here, when the dentures and the bald caps and the Maori tattoos come out.
The clever thing about casting our most enduring Everyman as every man is self-evident. But typecasting is a bitch, and Hanks' type is not every soldier, every astronaut or even every type-busting hit man. His type is one virtuous soldier, one virtuous astronaut and one virtuous hit man. And Mitchell isn't much interested in virtue as we demand it onscreen. Cloud Atlas, to the extent that it addresses goodness and badness beyond having a few good people arrayed against a welter of pretty bad people, posits an axis of Samaritanism (that Hanks specialty) and an axis of greed. The human story, to paraphrase one of the voices here, is one of hunger. Maybe, but there's a lot more chewing than nutrition in Cloud Atlas, more appetite than need.
On that grid we meet Hanks and Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant and Halle Berry, among others, as each portrays a plurality of people moving up and down their assigned axes. Whereas Forrest Gump — the red-state fantasy classic assembled (from a novel) by that other cold-eyed technocrat, Robert Zemeckis — gave us one incurious man galumphing down the decades, Cloud Atlas serves up several versions of the same clueless wanderers, all at the mercy of pattern.