The last time the Wachowski siblings directed a good movie, Bill Clinton was in the White House and Lana Wachowski was a man. Now along comes Cloud Atlas, the duo’s most ambitious film to date and a fine film in its own right. Well, at least I think it’s a fine movie. Cloud Atlas will likely divide movie goers into two camps: those who think it’s a top notch piece of scifi entertainment and those who think it’s a silly piece of new age bullshit. I currently find myself in the former category, but I can see why others could be turned off by it. Cloud Atlas is the kind of movie you’ll either love or you’ll hate.
This adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 bestseller follows six stories spanning continents and centuries. In the 19th century, an American lawyer suffers from an unknown malady on a business trip to the Pacific; in 1930’s Britain, a young composer apprentices himself to an ailing maestro; in 1970’s San Francisco, an aspiring reporter eludes a vicious hitman while uncovering a vast conspiracy; in present day U.K. a snarky publisher finds himself in debt to a ruthless criminal family; in a dystopian Korea, a clone gains sentience and joins an underground resistance movement; and in a distant, post-apocalyptic Hawaii, a goat herder guides a technologically advanced visitor through a demon-possessed wilderness. These stories couldn’t be more different, and yet they somehow fit together appropriately. The interconnectedness of each story is further emphasized by the fact that members of the film’s gigantic ensemble reappear within each time period, changing nationality, age, race, and even sex. The makeup and prosthetics of Cloud Atlas are occasionally so convincing, that in some sequences, members of the cast (which includes familiar faces such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Jim Broadbent) are virtually unrecognizable.
With Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis along with co-director Tom Tykwer have accomplished the seemingly impossible: adapting an unadaptable book. The novel from which this picture was adapted was structured in such a way that it presented half of each character’s story chronologically, then winded back in on itself to conclude where it began. The material is so dense with characters and ideas, that upon completing it, I was convinced that it was utterly unfilmable.
Many of the film’s detractors will no doubt maintain that the novel is utterly unfilmable. And I’ll be the first to admit that certain passages of the film can be unintentionally silly. In scripting the post apocalyptic Hawaiian sequences, the Wachowskis preserved the fictional, almost impenetrable dialects of the characters; Tom Hanks is particularly ill-suited for navigating those specific scenes. Furthermore, outlandish sequences involving a pair of fugitives engaging in a high speed hover bike race through the streets of a futuristic Seoul may seem out of place when stacked against the more concrete human drama of the passages set in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Cloud Atlas requires the permission of its audience in order to work. Those who reject the material out of hand are going to hate it no matter what. Those who allow the film to weave its spell over them are going to find a lot to enjoy.
The film’s directors have managed to tell a surprisingly coherent and emotional story through the art of cross-cutting. Entire subplots, characters, and scenes from the novel are excised and trimmed, and yet through the act of rapidly cross-cutting each story at the appropriate moments, an emotional throughline is charted that highlights the similarities between each story and connects each of the characters across time and space. Jim Broadbent’s attempt to escape a nursing home is seamlessly contrasted with Bae Doo-na’s efforts to escape a fascist regime; Tom Hanks’ efforts to help Halle Berry root out corruption in the 1970’s plays alongside Hanks’ efforts to guide Berry through a cannibal infested jungle in a post apocalyptic future; and so on.
The characters and scenarios are wildly different, and yet each character is sharing a similar emotional reaction to his or her circumstances. The individual stories themselves are less tangible and defined, and yet the film retains a greater emotional clarity. As a result, Cloud Atlas the film may actually be more accessible than Cloud Atlas the novel.
And yet, after describing the subplots of Cloud Atlas, I still couldn’t tell you what the film is ultimately about. In general terms, I suppose you could say it’s about humanity’s desire to be free across time and space, but that doesn’t entirely ring true. As with the novel, there are moments when the characters stumble upon a profound observation, and yet the production is mostly opaque. There are times when I find myself convinced that Mitchell wrote the source material merely so he could experiment with prose, and that Tykwer and the Wachowskis adapted the material so they could play with a variety of genres.
Whatever the intentions behind Cloud Atlas, we’re still left with a gorgeous film with lavish production values, brilliant make-up and special effects, inventive action sequences, and a strong cast that appears to be having a ball. It’s a hodgepodge of period pieces, political thrillers, and science fiction flicks that still manages to hang together. If Cloud Atlas is off-putting, it’s only because it’s too damn ambitious for its own good, a flaw I wish more contemporary movies suffered from.