How would you like to see Hugh Grant as a savage cannibal?
How about Hugo Weaving as a woman?
Tom Hanks with aboriginal facepaint? Hanks as a buck-toothed quack doctor? Or an expletive-spouting Welsh murderer?
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tom Hanks as Zachry and Halle Berry as Meronym in a scene from “Cloud Atlas,” an epic spanning centuries and genres.
The film is an epic of shifting genres and intersecting souls that features Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, James DíArcy, Doona Bae, Keith David, Sarandon and others in multiple roles spanning the centuries. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Jay Maidment)
"Cloud Atlas" has all this and more; the terms courageous and original come readily to mind.
The film was written and directed by Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run") and the Wachowskis, two siblings who gave us "The Matrix;" this creative triumvirate was apparently necessary to manage a three-hour epic with six storylines spanning five centuries.
The various plots involve a 19th-century sailing ship, a troubled composer, a reporter investigating corruption in the nuclear-power business, an aging publisher trapped in a prison-like nursing home, a rebellion in 22nd-century Seoul and a tribe of post-apocalyptic survivors in the far-distant future.
The stories are connected by themes of love, bigotry, self-sacrifice and the importance of individuals and their choices.
Tying it together even more firmly, most of the major players have a role in each storyline; besides Hanks, Weaving and Grant, these include Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent.
The film swiftly and fully engages us in all these tales, shifting rapidly from one to another with perfect ease and clarity.
We are only slightly distracted by trying to spot the actors in each strand - no mean feat considering the astonishing make-up job that, in one segment, makes Hanks a nerdy '70s scientist and in another, a grizzled old man with tattoos and horrific facial scars.
Grant is often virtually unrecognizable, sometimes vicious and rarely appealing - quite an achievement for this perennially likable actor.
In fact, the performances throughout are uniformly excellent. I've never seen Hanks show such range; and the galvanizing Korean actress Doona Bae inaugurates a very promising career. For the record, her roles include a Mexican and a caucasian; and many of the caucasian actors appear to good effect in the Korean scenes as well.
An Oscar for make-up would be well deserved here.
The film's few flaws include a ridiculous dialect created for the post-apocalyptic timeline. It's nearly impossible to understand, and so laughably awkward that after struggling to make it out, you often wish you hadn't.
More important, the film's philosophical stance is both too vague and too overstated: "Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb we are bound to others past and present"; and "The consequences of an individual's life ripple throughout eternity."
Three hours and a $102 million budget for that? Frankly, these truths seem so obvious that they'd be better left unstated; but the script foregrounds its philosophy again and again. The writers probably hoped to give us more to think about - but the net result is actually less.
Yet "Cloud Atlas" is never boring; despite its length and occasional absurdity, I didn't budge till the last credit rolled.
It's a startlingly ambitious piece of filmmaking.