“What is an ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Cloud Atlas is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen. Based on the novel by David Mitchell, it tells six separate, loosely connected stories in six locations at six times throughout history, spanning centuries. Souls transfer from character to character throughout time, with noble deeds rippling across the centuries, and future incarnations struggling to rid themselves of the demons brought on by their spiritual ancestors.
That’s a lot to get in, and despite the 172-minute running time the film barely pauses for breath. Cloud Atlas had previously been designated an ‘unfilmable’ novel, and given the pace of the scenes, almost every one of which advances that portion of the story, it’s easy to tell that screenwriters Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski struggled to get the complex narrative down to something manageable. It’s a target that, in the end, they just fall short of, but in this case you just have to sit back and admire the sheer gall and tenacity it took to make a film like this in the first place.
The book tells each sub-story separately (although split into two parts), whilst the film throws all six at you straight away, meaning the early portion of the film is confusing to say the least, given the mish-mash of film genres. There’s a 19th century ocean voyage, a series of letters from a composer to his friend, a corporate espionage thriller set in America’s 1970’s nuclear power revolution, a British farce about an elderly publisher, a rebellious clone in futuristic Korea and a tale of a tribe in post-Apocalyptic Hawaii. For a large portion of the film it was all I could do to keep up – which is no bad thing. The film-makers assume you can keep up rather than pandering to the slower viewers, and the result is a tough but ultimately satisfying workout for the mind.
The tricky beginning notwithstanding, as the film continues and storylines become clearer, the links between them firm up too. These links are primarily forged by the stunningly good directorial choice of having actors playing multiple roles in the different storylines. Thus Tom Hanks (who is as good as he’s been for a long time) is a doctor in 1849 one minute, a Hawaiian goat farmer the next, and a nuclear scientist a moment later. There are also multiple roles for the main cast of Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Wishaw and Doona Bae, with many other actors taking more than one part as well (they must have all had a great time!). This actor reuse not only strengthens the central theme of reincarnation, but helps the audience see its effects too … providing they manage to spot who is playing who at any given point – not always an easy task, as some appearences are brief, and the occasional heavy use of prosthetics renders some performances a mystery until everything is revealed during the closing credits.
The movie looks wonderful from start to finish, with each of the stories being instantly recognisable when the setting switches. The three writers shared directing duties, with the Wachowskis in charge of three segments and Tykwer taking the helm in the other three, but the overall effect is one of a confidently put together whole. The acting is also universally strong, and whilst it doesn’t make much sense to choose who was ‘best’ in a film where actors were filming multiple parts often in the same week, I will remember Hanks’ and Weaving’s performances from the Hawaiian section, Bae’s from the Korean section and Berry’s from the 1970’s section the most. However, that really shouldn’t detract from how brilliant just about everybody is in this, and their performances went a long way to keeping me interested for the three hours.
However, despite Cloud Atlas being a surprisingly effective adaption, it’s not flawless. The overarching links between the stories, the links that connect characters and their motivations across centuries, are perhaps not quite a strong as I would have liked. I know that they are not referenced as much or as obviously in the book, and maybe I should accept the fact that, at times, the stories are meant to only be weekly connected, but I did find myself yearning for more – for a fuller, more wholesome pattern, for stronger ties between souls across the years, for a universal truth, shall we say, to be reflected in all six tales. The fact that the actions of the characters’ past selves ultimately only hint at their future actions may leave some (like myself) a little unsatisfied with the overall product. If you’re aiming this high with the settings, timezones and genres, then the overarching themes should do as well.
At three hours, and with a complex narrative that demands attention, Cloud Atlas is a pretty draining film, but a very rewarding one too. Yes, some of the make-up and prosthetics end up being a bit distracting, and it may not reach the thematic nirvana I was hoping for, but it hits much, much more than it misses, and for an unfilmable film, that’s pretty damn remarkable. Above all, it’s important that films like this are made, giving us all breathing space from the endless teen supernatural and superhero franchises that seem to dominate the multiplexes these days, and for that alone I applaud everyone involved. Films like this tread a fine line between genius and pomposity, and whilst I don’t think it quite reached the former level, I do think that you’re going to take out of this what you put into it; I took in an open mind and a willingness to go with the directors’ vision, and I got out a mesmerising three hours that stayed with me for days.