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This is bad news for Hugo Weaving (a brilliant stage actor who deserves a better movie career), who must play an evil phantasm and an evil assassin and not much else. And it's not great for Broadbent, tasked with widening his big British blue eyes when he's innocent and narrowing them when he's not, and not doing much in between. In a movie that intends spiritual enormity, he's looped into a never-ending Benny Hill episode.
But Hanks is Hanks, so his peeps get to climb out of the ooze now and then. His 19th-century ship's doctor and Dickensian innkeeper and murderous writer exist in the book, but they feel tacked on here, a sop to a star eager to geek out with his bosses. And when his contract-demanding virtuous figure shows up — he's some kind of goatherd in a post-meltdown Hawaii — the Hanks of Cast Away ought to feel pretty good. Not so. Hanks with a machete and a very limited vocabulary and a Name of the Rose wig plays like an awful joke. No one was asking to see Tompocalypto. (Nobody wanted to see this the last time someone did it, either. In Bill Forsyth's 1994 Being Human, Robin Williams, another former clock-in at the Happy Days factory, tried on a pair of Everyman pants that didn't fit anyone.)
The Wachowski-Tykwer Cloud Atlas supposes that we're always an X or an O in a game of cosmic tic-tac-toe, that it's just a question of getting the center square once every few generations. Mitchell's novel isn't necessarily much deeper, but it's also not just about reincarnation. As one of its tales moves into the next, with each subsequent narrator considering the previous one, we figure out that the truth of repetition isn't just mortal but also — and more important — in the way that stories are handed across generations. (Published in 2004, it came along at the same moment that the Battlestar Galactica reboot told us, more simply and maybe better, "All of this has happened before and will happen again.") Conveying that here means a reliance on narration, on voice-over, on everything in movies that is lateral and of a more recognizable grammar.
Cloud Atlas is a big-canvas work that asks not for your usual suspension of disbelief but for the resumption of belief — in a greater power, in an order, in the thrill of upending that order once an age or so. That's not a bargain most audiences are willing to strike, even those prepared by the memory of all that deep Matrix sagacity. "I'm glad I didn't pay money to see that," clucked several people leaving the Cloud Atlas screening I attended. And for a moment, as much as I disliked Cloud Atlas, I beamed at these people an ugly mental retort: You just didn't get it.
After all, this is the kind of movie that throws around the word amanuensis with impunity. Hey, you think the first time that young musical genius Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) says he's traveling to Belgium to act as amanuensis to a famous old composer, I never thought I'd hear the word amanuensis in a big CGI extravaganza.
But even if you get Cloud Atlas it holds you permanently at bay. By the time this overstuffed visual transcript is over, you think: Hmph. Amanuensis. Figures.