Cloud Atlas is a long, fast-paced, sprawling, genre-mixing melting pot that often dazzles and is on occasion difficult to follow, even if you happen to be familiar with David Mitchell’s source novel. It’s one of the most daring and ambitious films that I can think of, yet it has been bashed by some affronted critics who consider it to be an overblown and pretentious folly. Conversely, and not without reason, it earned a ten minute standing ovation from the crowd when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. (There is no substance to the rumour that this was simply a collective outpouring of joy that the 172-minute-long film was finally over.)
I’m not going to sit on the fence here. The scope and execution of this movie has left me reeling and, subsequently, it has provided an always-welcome reminder of the reasons that I go to the cinema and the reasons that I love this medium. I admire the collective effort made by the production team; and had I been in that Toronto crowd I expect I too would have applauded for ten minutes. Maybe longer. Yet, that all said, I’m fully aware that Cloud Atlas is also riddled with flaws: sometimes it thrills, sometimes the way the actors are used makes you cringe, sometimes it all gets a little too mawkish and at other times it’s just plain incomprehensible. Admiring it is easy, and truly loving it in the long run might actually be hard work, but everything about the film suggests it will be rewarding.
With an ambitious film that aims this high, you have to allow for the fact that some things will inevitably go wrong, or will simply not work out too well. Cloud Atlas incorporates the kind of scale and grandeur that makes it a project that, frankly, very few would even consider attempting to film, but the crew behind it have addressed their task with such conviction that, simply put, they have made it work.
Mitchell’s original novel tells six interlinked stories that span several hundred years, beginning in the nineteenth century and ending in a post-apocalyptic future. In the first half of his book these stories run chronologically, one after another; in the second half they run in reverse, meaning the book starts and ends, neatly symmetrical, in the nineteenth century. Directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have changed things around with their film adapatation, and have edited the stories so that they run energetically together, often helping to highlight their thematic links. Writing in Sight and Sound this month, the critic Anton Bitel makes an excellent point in reference to the widely-held belief that Mitchell’s novel was ‘unfilmable’, pointing out that the writer-directors have ‘crafted a film whose decidedly cinematic syntax of crosscutting, montage and graphic matches make the finished product – a feverish interweaving of multiple storylines in various genres – seem conversely “unnovelisable”’.
The first story (chronologically) follows a young San Franciscan lawyer named Adam Ewing as he travels by ship to the Chatham Islands in 1849 to conclude business on behalf of his father-in-law. On the journey back Ewing forms a bond with Autua, a native tribesman who is discovered as a stowaway. Autua is saved by Ewing from the ship’s crew and returns the favour by helping the lawyer when he is slowly poisoned by an avaricious, duplicitous doctor named Henry Goose. Despite the eventful journey Ewing manages to record the on-board events in a journal, which is found several decades later by Robert Frobisher, the principal character of the second story, set in 1936.
Frobisher is a bisexual English composer who has been disinherited by his wealthy family. Running away from his debts, he finds employment in Edinburgh as an amanuensis to the famous-but-fading composer Vyvyan Ayrs. At Ayrs’ home he writes letters to his lover Rufus Sixsmith, sleeps with his host’s wife Jocasta, and writes a piece of music entitled the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’. A jealous Ayrs tries to claim the music as his own, threatening to expose Frobisher’s background should he fail to comply.
The love letters from Frobisher to Sixsmith are read by investigative journalist Luisa Rey, the focus of the third story of Cloud Atlas. (Rey also obtains a copy of the Cloud Atlas Sextet, a further link to the second story.) Here, in 1973, Rey meets the elderly Sixsmith by chance, who tells her of a conspiracy aiming to cover up the safety levels of the Swannekke Island nuclear reactor, run by Lloyd Hooks. The aim is to cause an accident at Swannekke that will subsequently cause public mistrust of nuclear power to the eventual benefit of oil companies. Frobisher and fellow scientist Isaac Sachs both try and help Rey uncover the truth, but are killed by a vicious hitman named Bill Smoke, who then goes after the thorn in his company’s side.
Next up is the more farcical but occasionally threatening tale of Timothy Cavendish, a London-based publisher who at one point receives a draft of a novel called “Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” in the post. Cavendish is a vanity publisher, and strikes gold when he releases the autobiography of violent criminal Dermot Hoggins, a psychopath who manages to murder a critic at his own book launch, sending his own book sales into the stratosphere. When Hoggins’ family come looking for a larger share of the book’s profits, Cavendish goes on the run, and is tricked by his vindictive brother Denholme into checking in at a nursing home. Despite protestations of his own sanity, Cavendish is unable to leave the home and has to fight the tyrannical regime of Nurse Noakes (copied almost wholesale from One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest’s Nurse Ratched) while plotting his escape.
Cavendish’s autobiography is made into a film, which is later watched by the genetically-engineered clone worker Somni 451 in the fifth story of Cloud Atlas. Here, in a beautifully-designed totalitarian Neo-Seoul of 2144 that has evolved frighteningly from the all-too-familiar corporate culture we can see spreading across the globe today, Somni 451 works for a fast food chain named Papa Song’s. In this grim dystopian future clone workers are treated as second class citizens and are kept compliant through chemical manipulation, but Somni is released from her servitude by the freedom fighter Hae-Joo Chang, and the pair are chased around Neo-Seoul by ruthless stormtroopers in Cloud Atlas’ most thrilling scenes. Chang is part of a rebel movement that goes by the name of Union, and reveals to Somni the grisly secrets of the organisation she works for.
Somni’s education is fully realised by the time she makes a public broadcast of her story and manifesto, in which she denounces slavery and exploitation. By the time of the final story, set in Hawaii ‘106 winters after the Fall’, Somni 451 is worshipped as a goddess by a primitive society, who are in turn hunted by tribes of bloodthirsty cannibals. The primitives are visited by Meronym, member of a ‘prescient’ group which holds on to the remnants of the technology that existed on Earth before the Fall. Meronym is seeking a communications station entitled ‘Cloud Atlas’, so that she can send a message to Earth’s colonies, and she is helped by the tribesman Zachry, who is himself hunted by the cannibals and haunted by fearful hallucinations of a nightmarish character named ‘Old Georgie’.
If you’re confused now then pity the uninitiated cinemagoer who wanders in to the multiplex because they happen to like the previous cinematic output of (deep breath) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James D’Arcy, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving or Susan Sarandon, all of which appear across the six stories playing a variety of roles. The rapid introduction of all of these plots and characters at once, and the speed with which the film leaps forward or backwards in time, makes for an initially disorientating experience, even if you’re familiar with the novel or the basic premise. This will test the patience and concentration levels of many viewers, but eventually things do fall into place and, gradually, familiarity wills out. It’s no wonder that Cloud Atlas bombed in the US; even though the film is never boring, it is at times hard work, and it will be no surprise if it pans out to be as commercially unsuccessful elsewhere. The fault doesn’t necessarily lie with the paying public, but with studios that have long-encouraged audiences to switch off as soon as the title credits roll, and who have considered the practice of taxing our minds to be as suicidal and off-putting a concept as defecating on our cinema seats prior to showtime.
The central themes of Cloud Atlas that are explored across the six tales concern storytelling, humanity’s innate extremes of cruelty and kindness (or good and evil / love and hate if you like), karma, reincarnation, myths, our relationship with the environment, exploitation, repetitive cycles and slavery. To emphasise the links between the stories and the continuation of these practices across time, the principle cast members all appear under a variety of guises as mentioned above. Asian actors occasionally play Caucasian parts, and vice versa. Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw both take on female roles, a decision which some may find interesting in light of Lana Wachowski’s recent gender re-assignment. Halle Berry at one point plays a German Jewish lady. Though it’s not exactly original, I’m struggling to think of a film that undertakes such a practice of role-swapping on a similar scale.
This is actually the most jarring aspect of Cloud Atlas, unfortunately, but it remains a thoroughly interesting one. While much of the acting is better than average, Tom Hanks is particularly execrable in some of his cartoonish roles, most notably as Henry Goose, a doctor with teeth as ludicrously expressive as his bulging eyes, and his accents when playing a Scottish hotelier and the Irish novelist Goggins make Dick Van Dyke look like an acting behemoth. Like Hanks, Weaving chews the scenery in nearly all of his scenes (particularly as the cadaverous ‘Old Georgie’ and the mean Nurse Noakes, which will amuse fans of the UK comedies The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen no end), but their performances are offset thanks to convincing turns by Bae, Whishaw, Berry, D’Arcy and Sturgess. Hugh Grant in particular is excellent throughout, which is especially surprising seeing as he plays against type with portrayals of a cavalcade of villainous characters. When he appears as a tattooed post-apocalyptic cannibal, blood dripping from his mouth and eyes wild with rage, you could be forgiven for forgetting that it’s the same bloke who nurtured worldwide fame by playing a series of stuttering English fops.
Looking out for the repeating stars in each segment is distracting at times, particularly when the spotting of Actor A or Actor B merely emphasises some wonky prosthetics or a slight dip in the make-up department’s standards. It’s an awkward device employed to ram home the novel’s themes of cycles, reincarnation and the fact that we’re-all-basically-linked-together-from-the-dawn-of-time-to-the-end-maaaan, as many critics have pointed out, but it also helps in some respects, in that it’s used more subtly to reinforce the message that our basic human urges and needs do not change despite the advance of time and the advance (and eventual regression) of technology. And, y’know, while it is distracting, it’s also fun to play Spot The Weaving.
Yes, despite what you may have heard, watching Cloud Atlas is actually a fun experience a lot of the time, despite its highbrow pretensions and the accusations of it being portentous and overblown. Whishaw’s engaging performance as the caddish Robert Frobisher ensures an essentially dull tale of a young musician shacking up with a fading one becomes far more tense and poignant than it ought to be. There are deaths that come as complete shocks. There are incredible chase scenes through the streets of Neo-Seoul and acrobatic wire stunts and fights that recall the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy (though the impact of these has sadly been dulled with age and repetition elsewhere). There are exploding planes, doffed caps to dozens of films, endearingly light comic moments (usually delivered by Jim Broadbent), incredible costumes, superbly-designed sets, above par special effects (though with one or two dodgy moments presumably due to dwindling funds), and – above all – it is one of the most superbly edited pieces of cinema I have ever seen.
But, that said, you can’t help feeling a little let down by some elements of Cloud Atlas. Aside from the performances mentioned above, at times it has a cheese factor of Camembert to the power of ten, particularly in an epilogue that stinks to high heaven. Its willingness to tritely hint at other literary and cinematic works without ever truly getting to grips with their ideas is occasionally infuriating, suggesting deeper meanings that I don’t believe the Wachowskis or Tykwer actually follow up and deliver on or at least engage with properly, such is their pre-occupation with the other billion-and-one jobs on their plates. Occasionally it’s all a little too fast, refusing to stay still for a moment to let the action and dialogue sink in with the viewer despite the three hour running time. And, on the subject of the dialogue, some of it is frankly impossible to understand. When Tom Hanks and Halle Berry mumble on and on (and on) in post-apocalyptic Hawaii in a kind of patois redolent of nineteenth century American plantation slaves mixed with words that originated in Mandarin Chinese, it only serves to muddy an already poorly-explained plotline.
Cloud Atlas has its faults, for sure, but they are faults in a film that aims high and often – crucially – reaches those heights. It is never boring, and I feel so much goodwill towards it I can forgive all of the gripes listed above; not one of them will preclude me from taking in more viewings in the future. Many critics left confused and irritated have accused it of being an empty film, full of promise but failing to deliver in terms of any real substance, an accusation tiresomely levelled at nearly every visually-stunning blockbuster that comes our way. Bullshit. It’s far from empty, and I’d warrant a substantial amount of the pillorying it has received are extreme knee-jerk reactions to the film’s relentless otherness.
Cloud Atlas will be pored over and examined for many, many years to come. Its dazzling sense of spectacle, its sheer scope, its inventiveness and its willingness to creatively splice various genres and actors will, one day, ensure that it is cherished by some people in the same way all of those things will undoubtedly make others despise it. We’re fed countless numbers of earnest historic biopics, noisy CGi-fests, clever-clever quirky indie triers, tired and re-hashed action films, formulaic horrors and superhero flicks and artistic, heart-tugging depictions of real-life disasters. Many of them are well made and some of them are even lucky enough to win Oscars. Occasionally a film comes along that stands so far apart from these ordinary blockbusters it takes more than a little effort to get used to it. Be patient, and give it time: many great films have been critically-panned at the time of release and have not been hampered by their commercial failure.
Directed by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Written by: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski (original novel by David Mitchell)
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Halle Berry, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Zhou Xun, Susan Sarandon, James D’Arcy, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon
Running Time: 172 minutes