Directors: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
Oh, Cloud Atlas. Where does one even begin?
We could begin at the beginning, with David Mitchell’s 2004 novel. A prominent bestseller and book club favourite, it weaves several disparate stories, separated by centuries and geography, into a lesson on the repetition inherent in human experience. It earned praise, massive sales and the inevitable ‘unfilmable’ tag. The Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation has finally arrived, having already bombed at the US box office, and one can see why many critics thought the novel was best left unfilmed. It’s a sprawling mess of a film, with storylines struggling against each other for notice. That said, it’s a beautiful and assured mess, which must surely count for something in our age of mass-produced filmic rubbish. Right? Right?!
Cloud Atlas begins at the end, with an aged Tom Hanks by a wood fire underneath the stars waxing lyrical on human connectedness. From this humble start/finish, we jump back into six story strands, connected by various characters, themes and sometimes the most tenuous of links. The most obvious connection in all of these stories is the recurrence of several actors. Take Hanks as an example. Across the six stories, Hanks is a ship’s doctor (in the year 1849), a crummy hotel receptionist (in 1936), a nuclear physicist (1973), an Irish gangster-turned-author (present day), an actor in a film (2144) and a hunter-gatherer resident of post-apocalyptic Earth. In some of the roles, Hanks gets a raw deal in the make-up department, but other actors in other stories are nigh-on unrecognizable. This gambit clearly reflects the idea of reoccurrence and connections, but the novelty of the gimmick mutes its effectiveness. Actors change genders and races with amazing frequency, but the varying quality in make-up and performances makes for an awkward watch. See Ben Whishaw play a oddly-pretty blonde woman! See Jim Sturgess play a Korean! Watch Korean actress Doona Bae play a white woman! If you’re not surrendering to the novelty, Cloud Atlas is an equal opportunities offender. And the less said about Hugo Weaving’s Nurse Ratched clone, the better.
The most effective stories are those depending least on the prosthetics. In 1936, Ben Whishaw’s Frobisher goes to work for acclaimed composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) whilst composing his own masterpiece, the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Meanwhile, in 1973, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating the motives behind the aggressive push for nuclear power being spearheaded by Lloyd Brooks (Hugh Grant). Unfortunately, a hitman (Hugo Weaving) is on her tail. It helps that Frobisher’s lover Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) is Rey’s source on the nuclear generator story: in other words, a genuine connection. Most other inter-story connections feel weak. It’s a long and bumpy journey from an 1800s Pacific voyage to the final remnants of humanity three centuries from now. The through-line of Cloud Atlas is incredibly muddled but should reward repeat viewings, should one be so inclined.
The performances and the filmmaking skill in these tales is fine, but the plots themselves are basic at best. Stretching any of them to feature length would require a lot of beefing up of the script. Indeed, all these plotlines are defined by either being underwritten or being rehashes of other films. Take the story in 2144, set in a futuristic Seoul with clones working as slaves for a consumerist society. When one clone, Sonmi-451 (Bae, again) is inspired to escape servitude by rebel Hae-Joo (Sturgess, again), she is forced on the run and becomes an unlikely mascot for the rebellion against Big Brother. All this from the folks who directed The Matrix? It’s all very 1999. New Seoul looks dazzling, but then the plot beats creep in and a twist taken from another film will inspire more than a few eye rolls.
Every strand has something to both leave you agape and to leave you slapping your forehead. The latter is served mostly by the present-day story of publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent, again), fleeing some Irish gangsters (including Hanks, whose Dublin accent is so bad it’s almost good) and getting unwittingly committed to an old folks’ home by his brother (Grant, again!). Evidently, the novel felt a need for levity and so did the script. On its own, it stirs a mild titter; next to the New Seoul storyline, it’s as tonally out-of-place as a clown at a wake. There’s a lot in Cloud Atlas that feels like it could have been chopped, but the Wachowskis and Tykwer keep as much as they can in place. You can hardly blame them; themes of connectedness and interchangeability are endlessly fascinating and relevant (Lana Wachowski, formerly Larry, is living proof of that). That said, there have to be more subtle ways of exploring these themes than having Halle Berry play a white Jewish woman or Hugh Grant play a cannibalistic tribe leader. All this is driven by wild ambition; the size and scope of Cloud Atlas must surely make it the most ambitious film in years. However, ambition on its own does not a fully-realized vision make.
The process of adapting novels into film should be a distillation of themes and plot into an accessible-yet-true take on the source. Cloud Atlas is accessible (Jumping between plots ensures you’re never bored), but the truth is hidden in prosthetics and happenstance. Cloud Atlas has inspired, and is going to inspire, fiery reactions from both lovers and haters. Then again, something that causes such opposing reactions must be doing something right.