Released 2013. Directors: Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
TO DESCRIBE CLOUD ATLAS AS AMBITIOUS SEEMS FIRSTLY to state the
obvious and secondly inadequate. Containing six stories interlinked somehow, Cloud Atlas attempts to draw a grand sweep across hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years and over a vast geographical spread. It is based on David Mitchell’s equally ambitious book, which lost the 2004 Man Booker Prize by apparently one single vote.
Mitchell is a talented writer whose best stories are structurally innovative. Cloud Atlas is by far the most narratively complex of his novels, with the six stories arranged in a way to mirror each other. A movie adaptation seems an impossible task. But as we have learned from movies such as Life of Pi and The Hours, no book is unfilmable.
Three directors took to the task: Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. Their combined treatment seems more confounding than the book,
with the six stories being told almost at the same time, flipping from one to another so quickly some scenes last mere seconds. This initial wave of multiple stories, characters and settings can be challenging but once you grasp what’s going on, Cloud Atlas becomes an involving, at times exciting, and certainly an uncommon cinematic experience.
Editing is a tough call on this one and so much of the movie’s ultimate accessibility rests on timing. For all its three hours, I was never bored or distracted. Cloud Atlas can be described as a collage of segments of a disjointed dream with permeable boundaries without beginning or end, governed by a vague sense of connection and its own weird logic.
I think it’s a fabulous idea to use the same actors to play multiple roles in all the stories, familiar yet at times unrecognizable. Some people have accused Cloud Atlas of being racist with white actors playing black or Asian, or vice versa. To me this underscores the universality of humanity, which is an emphasis of this movie. Tom Hanks is a physician in the 1800s, a thug in present-day England, an elder in a futuristic community. Halle Berry is a white Jewish wife in 1936, a fearless journalist in the 1970s, a male Korean doctor in 2144. Jim Broadbent is captain of a sea voyage, a book editor imprisoned in a nursing home, an advanced being in 2321. Hugo Weaving is a hired killer, an intimidating female nurse, an evil presence. Then there is Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou and the list of actors continue. All these characters sort of make up a small representation of humanity across the ages.
The interconnectedness stretches across time and space to link the lives of a seafarer in the late 1800s to a composer’s assistant in the 1930s, to a journalist in San Francisco in the 1970s, to a publisher in a nursing home in the early 2000s, to an android in the 21st century, to a community in an apocalyptic world. Their actions echo through the ages with domino effect. Some audiences will take this as a story of karma and reincarnation, especially as the same actors appear as different persons in different times. I don’t think that is Mitchell’s idea. Cloud Atlas is much bigger than a story of lives reborn and relived – more a grand design of cosmic purpose, if you will. A web of causality, chance and irreversible consequences. Each of the stories has its own strengths and weaknesses. The end destination is not the point but the journey. Each story shows us meaning in the lives of its characters, their joy, pain, love, selfless sacrifice, silly decisions, all the little things that make up a moving tableau of humanity.