You'd expect some seriously special effects from any movie made by the Wachowskis (who gave us The Matrix), and on that score, Cloud Atlas delivers. But though it can boast several awesomely realized CG cityscapes, the film (which was co-directed by the Wachowskis with Tom Tykwer and premiered this past weekend at the Toronto Film Festival) places a premium performance on practical makeup more than any movie the Wachowskis have yet made; in fact, more than almost any movie we can think of. You see, for this genre-hopping, epoch-spanning sci-fi drama, stars like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry play multiple characters in different eras, and they're sometimes even asked to cross racial or gender lines to hammer home the central themes of reincarnation and connection across all boundaries. Which transformations are the most audacious? Read on.
White Halle Berry
Vulture has probed the startling idea of white Halle Berry once before, and while we suggested that she most closely resembles Madonna, readers convincingly put forth Vera Farmiga and Leslie Mann, too. But now that we've actually seen the movie, and we know that this Berry character, Jocasta, is a haughty Jewess with a thing for British men, that ought to tip the scales in Madonna's favor, right?
Tom Hanks as a thuggish writer
God bless the Cloud Atlas filmmakers for remembering that Tom Hanks used to be a rubbery comic actor and not simply an earnest award winner. Sure, he gets some straightforward dramatic notes to play in this film, but more often, Hanks is giving super-spirited, accented performances in crazy disguises, and it looks like he's having a blast. That's never more true than when Hanks pops up as Dermot Hoggins, a Brit author with a thing for gangster style (which could explain why he sort of resembles Ice T).
Asian Jim Sturgess
The Wachowskis walk their most daring high-wire act in the movie's futuristic neo-Seoul section, which centers on cloned slave Sonmi-451. She's played by South Korean actress Doona Bae, but the other characters in this era are mostly cast with the movie's white stars in makeup and prosthetics that make them appear Asian. The best brought-off of these is Jim Sturgess as Sonmi's savior and eventual romantic partner, since Sturgess gets weirdly hotter when made to seem like a vaguely Eurasian male model. It's a good look for you, Jim! Keep it!
Doona Bae as a redhead
But is it as easy to take a Korean actor and make her into a red-headed Caucasian? Since this version of Bae appears in the new Cloud Atlas trailer, you can be the judge of that.
Ben Whishaw as a woman
The willowy Whishaw has a girlish figure already, so it seems inevitable that he'll be asked to play a woman at some point in a movie like Cloud Atlas. But after spotting him in several incarnations — a goateed hippie here, a post-apocalyptic trash-heap version of David Arquette there — it's still a hoot when the pretty Brit appears as Georgette, the alluring, soft-spoken wife of Hugh Grant (himself unrecognizable in old-age makeup).
Cannibal tribesman Hugh Grant
Grant doesn't really have a primary role in Cloud Atlas, instead putting in cameo appearances in each era in disguises as different as an old man, a sex-mad Asian lout, and a face-painted cannibal tribesman. What led the filmmakers to Grant for these roles, we'll never know, but suffice it to say that they perceived in all those stuttering British romcoms a range we never did.
Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes
The cleverest conceit in the way Cloud Atlas is put together — and it may be difficult for the Academy and audiences to fully grasp at first — is that sometimes, the filmmakers don't seem to want the makeup to be incredibly convincing. Instead, with some of these outlandish characters, you're meant to immediately grasp that this is a cast member playing wildly against type, to help sell the idea of reincarnation from the actor's previous character or simply to garner an appreciative chuckle. For example, it's no great stretch that the Wachowskis have cast their Matrix villain, Hugo Weaving, as a variety of baddies in this film, too, but it provokes the biggest smile when Weaving shows up as a mean Nurse Ratched type with droopy eyes and a full-breasted body. After Weaving had to wear that same Agent Smith drag through three Matrix films, how fun for him to cut loose and switch genders for a while.