“Surely this is one of the most ambitious films ever made.
The little world of film criticism has been alive with interpretations of it, which propose to explain something that lies outside explanation. Any explanation of a work of work must be found in it, not take to it. As a film teacher, I was always being told by students that a film by David Lynch, say, or Werner Herzog, was “a retelling of the life of Christ, say, or ‘Moby Dick’.” My standard reply was: Maybe it’s simply the telling of itself…”
So says Roger Ebert, one of the world’s most eminent film reviewers. It’s true: regardless of any other opinion you made hold of Cloud Atlas, adapted from David Mitchell’s critically acclaimed novel by The Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), you certainly can’t fault it for it’s sense of ambition.
Cloud Atlas‘ fractured narrative follows a group of seemingly unrelated individuals scattered across the world and throughout history. While Mitchell’s novel relates these in first chronological then reverse chronological order – cutting each story neatly in half so that the progression follows as 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 – the film does not hold to the structural conceit: it jumps back and forth from the South Pacific in the mid 19th Century all the way to the Hawaiian Islands a century after some future apocalypse, by route of 1930s Edinburgh, 1970s San Francisco, present day Great Britain, and “Neo Seoul” in 2144.
If this sounds like it has the potential to become a bit of a sprawling mess, it does, though the actors and themes that transition from one sequence to the next just about hold it together.
From a tribesman who becomes unwilling guide to one of the last members of a technologically advanced civilization long after mankind’s fall, the ailing notary trying desperately to return home from an exotic archipelago, to a penniless musician seeking to make his name as amanuensis to an aged luminary, a crusading journalists whose life is threatened when she seeks to expose a coverup at a nuclear facility, a middle-aged publisher who flees his business when assailed by hoodlums and finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home against his will, and a genetically engineered server at a future fast food franchise who gains awareness and becomes a vital figure to a resistance movement, all these stories have in common are a few grand themes – life, death, resurrection – and some recognizable faces.
Unlike in the novel where each section had its own distinct literary style, there’s no such effort to distinguish the sequences here; perhaps for the best given the huge tonal shifts already in play. While at first there would seem to be no connection between the different characters played by each actor – Hanks’ roles, for instance, range between a deranged skinhead author and a milquetoast physicist – the presence of a comet-shaped birthmark carried across each of the stories by a different character, actor even, supports the idea that these are souls migrating from one life to another.
There’s relatively little in terms of your standard villains, though each of the sections has it’s own minor antagonist, such as the villainous Nurse Noakes, an authoritarian right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, played, bizarrely, by Hugo Weaving. Like Weaving – who also plays a racist Victorian social theorist, an implacable hitman, and a green-skinned Satanic figure – Hugh Grant also gets a brace of baddies, including, somewhat marvelously, a rat-tailed, heavily tattooed cannibal. Cloud Atlas is never less than thoroughly entertaining, though the outlandish of it’s presentation occasionally undermines the seriousness of the themes it contains.
Suffice it to say, each of our protagonists – played sequentially by Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, and finally Tom Hanks – is a victim of time and of circumstance, though personally I only ever truly felt for Whishaw’s tortured composer (given his recent appearance in Skyfall, this is transpiring to be something of a breakout year for him.)*
Never exactly lapsing into incoherence, the frenetic cutting between each of the stories does prevent one from fully bedding down in any of them. It’s perhaps telling that the parts I enjoyed most about the original novel were generally the parts I enjoyed most here. While “unadaptable” is a word that’s bandied about far too often – with successful adaptations such as Ang Lee’s of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi going a long way to disprove the theory – the question is whether Cloud Atlas was ever a book that required on the screen.
This is a strangely ephemeral work, full of themes and ideas, in which it’s impossible to ever fully feel grounded. However, in a film about the transience of life and the endurance of the human spirit, maybe that’s partly the point. More for fans of the book than anyone else, an ambitious if flawed and not wholly satisfying experience, Cloud Atlas amounts to less than the sum of its parts, but, to it’s credit, is never afraid to try something new.
* This is excluding Whishaw’s performances in Bright Star, Perfume: The Story of a Murder (also by Tom Tykwer), and 2008’s Brideshead Revisited.