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updated: 10/25/2012 7:35 AM

Tales from six time periods get mashed together in convoluted, superficial drama

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  • Zachry (Tom Hanks) accompanies Meronym (Halle Berry) through a dangerous forest in the future in "Cloud Atlas."

    Zachry (Tom Hanks) accompanies Meronym (Halle Berry) through a dangerous forest in the future in "Cloud Atlas."

  • Video: CLOUD ATLAS trailer


Let's put it this way: "Cloud Atlas" makes for a far more provocative trailer than it does a feature film. A long, long feature film.

Not even Shirley MacLaine could love this convoluted, complicated tale of past-life experiences, complete with wacky accents, spotty makeup jobs and a narrative mashup of six intertwined plots set at different places and different times in history.

"Cloud Atlas" is a spectacular yawn, a sprawling epic stretched so thin across the centuries that the characters possess the emotional depths of props, and even function as props, as well.

Members of the all-star cast -- especially Hugo Weaving as an odd-looking female nurse -- appear discernibly embarrassed playing some of their many multiple characters, especially when delivering expository dialogue that explains the obvious, or underlines, italicizes and capitalizes the point of what we've just witnessed them do.

This movie represents nearly three lengthy hours of raw, disappointing ambition from "Run Lola Run" director Tom Tykwer and those imaginative Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, who gave us "The Matrix" and its two sequels. (Back then, Lana went by the name of Larry before a sex-change operation.)

For "Cloud Atlas," Tykwer and the Wachowskis wrote a screenplay adapted from David Mitchell's 2004 novel (which I have not read), in which six separate stories are presented in different literary genres.

For the movie, these six tales have been monotonously edited together in a cinematic tapestry of crazy chronological shifts backward, forward, then backward again, accompanied by impressively flashy visuals. At least "Cloud Atlas" keeps the eyes engaged.

The story -- or stories -- starts in 1849, with an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) writing letters to his main squeeze (Doona Bae) while sailing around the Pacific islands. Along with him comes Tom Hanks as a physician with a dark motive for "helping" the lawyer with medication.

Hanks flits in and out of the movie in different disguises (a cockney brawler, a snotty novelist) brandishing exaggerated accents. As a poor goat herder in a post-apocalyptic 24th century, Hanks even struggles through a hodgepodge of mangled English with his co-star Halle Berry, while wrestling with his not-so-inner demon -- a Mr. Hyde version of the Lucky Charms leprechaun (Weaving, again).

Berry also gets her moments to shine as a 1936 trophy wife, and a tough San Francisco investigative reporter in 1973 when she avoids an assassin with help from tough guy Keith David.

The versatile, always watchable Jim Broadbent enjoys his best role as an aging composer befriended in 1936 by a younger composer wannabe (Ben Whishaw), forced to flee his earlier town after being exposed as a homosexual.

Broadbent clearly has the most fun with his many incarnations, and seems comfortable with even the most extreme wigs and other ridiculous add-ons.

Each of the six stories could probably have been a feature unto itself, especially the one set in 2144, a scary vision of the future in which cloned "fabricants" serve the consuming class as a new form of indentured servitude. (The phony looking Asian eye make-up has to go, however.)

"Cloud Atlas" (the title of a composition by Whishaw's character, actually composed by Tykwer and two others) engages in the kind of elementary revelations you might experience at a hashish-enhanced slumber party.

We're all part of a grand, universal plan to be reborn into other times and keep meeting the same people we met before but now don't remember!

Whoa. That's heavy, man.

As Berry's reporter laments, "I keep trying to figure out why we keep making the same mistakes, over and over."

Or in the case of the Wachowski siblings, why do they keep making the same mistakes while creating visually mesmerizing but superficial and dramatically deficient motion pictures?

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