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That credulous comic-book vibe extends to the film’s unconvincing depiction of humanity as a mix-and-match gene pool. Old age makeup rarely works in movies, and it doesn’t here; more bizarre are appearances by Berry as a white-skinned Jewess in 2012 London, Sturgess as a Neo-Seoul Asian, and Bae as Ewing’s 19th-century American wife. Some of this gamesmanship is fun: Susan Sarandon covered with facial tattoos as a post-apocalyptic Abbess, or Hugo Weaving — the movie’s snarling, all-purpose Satan — done up in drag as the old age home’s Big Nurse. It’s very possible that the 2008 reassignment surgery that allowed Larry Wachowski to become Lana had an influence on the film’s notions of gender fluidity. It’s also clear that those notions don’t add up to much. As “Cloud Atlas” progresses, you feel trapped in a deranged costume party.
And yet attention must be paid. The filmmakers obviously don’t care what people write or think about them — in the movie’s single funniest scene, a thuggish author (Tom Hanks in brownface) tosses a snippy book critic (Alistair Petrie) over a balcony with a satisfying splat — but their ambitions are immense and their skills almost up to the task. With “Cloud Atlas,” they’ve made the big honking utopian mega-movie they wanted, an epic white elephant that’s profound on its many surfaces and banal beneath. Good for them, but the art that lasts tends to get it the other way around.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.