It takes a lot of nerve and ego to adopt David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to the big screen. The novel tells six separate stories in six separate time periods, careening from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future. Each story riffs on a different genre, both in terms of plot and language. The unifying thread among them is physical text itself, a conceit that’s difficult to communicate through film. But these ridiculous, seemingly insurmountable challenges did not deter directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski from condensing the novel into a three-hour, visually imaginative epic. It’s inevitable that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off — how could they? — but the admirable material outweighs the mistakes.
Summarizing each of the six stories is, frankly, pointless: there are too many characters to mention and too many worlds to build. So, let’s start with the book. Mitchell constructs Cloud Atlas like a Russian nesting doll: he tells one half of five stories, completes the sixth in one go, then backtracks from story five to story one. Crucially, the directors abandon this structure and tell all the stories in parallel.
Sometimes Tykwer and the Wachowskis cut from one focal point to another, using dialogue and imagery to show the connections between the past and future. When a Jim Broadbent character says he won’t go through a door in 2012, for example, the directors cut to a futuristic Seoul where Doona Bae has no choice but to walk through one. These connections, which veer from obvious to subtle, are the biggest pleasures of Cloud Atlas.
The other important choice is how all the actors play multiple roles. Halle Berry is the wife to an eccentric character in one story and a plucky journalist in another. Ben Whishaw plays a woman in one story, and other actors switch their ethnicity. The make-up is mostly impressive, although it’s a little jarring when non-white actors switch to being Asian, or the other way around. The directors are suggesting that these characters are different people, but possess the same soul. Their redemption, or lack of it, becomes more about humanity than any individual arc.
Tom Hanks, the only actor with a speaking role in each time period, faces the biggest challenge. He begins as an exploitive monster and ends as an unlikely savior of humanity. Hanks’ arc is the strongest example of a unifying moral choice: in each story, there is a point where the strong exploits the weak, and characters must choose between the status quo and basic human decency. Tykwer and Wachowskis strive for deep meaning, but just like those sequels to The Matrix, new age pretense clouds the humanist message.
As pure entertainment, Cloud Atlas is all over the place. The stories about a young composer and an old book publisher are the most successful since they require the least context. We understand who these characters are quickly, and because they’re quick-witted, we care about what happens to them. My favorite story from the book is the one about the English composer, and it takes unfortunate liberties so that his final decision is confusing, not tragic.
The bigger problem, and what nearly ruins the movie, is the breezy handling of the two science fiction stories. They’re visually stunning — when it uses a bold close-up or a sweeping shot of a mountainside, Cloud Atlas is consistently eye-popping — but esoteric dialogue only exacerbates how the directors rush through plot when it requires more patience. Action sequences are elegant and suspenseful, yet oddly hollow. Perhaps the directors should have taken a page from Peter Jackson and split their adaptation into more than one movie.
The five-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas is a genuinely beautiful chunk of advertising. Those quiet, evocative piano notes suggest a film of uncommon significance. The imagery is dark and lively. It ends with “Outro” by M83, a song that’s cinematic in a Vangelis/Blade Runner kind of way. Where the movie runs into trouble is the repetition: Susan Sarandon has a monologue that begins with “Our lives our not our own,” and we hear the same speech way more than necessary. In other words, Tykwer and the Wachowskis do not deliver on the promise of a stunning, significant film. Fans of the book will be mildly disappointed; those who go in cold will be entertained and possibly a little confused. Cloud Atlas is the perfect movie for the stoned college sophomore in all of us.