Adapted from David Mitchell’s bestselling novel, Cloud Atlas is a film of towering ambitions. Woven from six narrative threads of different colours and weights, the film is set over a period spanning something like 400 years, from the 19th century to the distant future. It utilises a shared pool of actors who may be the hero in one story, the villain in another, or just a bit player in the next. Players change nationalities, races and in some cases even genders between the stories. The cast play parts in a range of acting styles from realism to broad caricature.
The six stories that make up the film are each in a distinctive genre. There is: an historical adventure of far away lands and nautical peril; an early 20th century drama of forbidden love in the English upper classes; a 70s conspiracy thriller; a geriatric present day comedy; a cyberpunk thriller set in 22nd century Neo-Seoul; a grim post apocalyptic horror story taking place sometime in the far-flung future.
Directing duties are split between the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) and German Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International), with Tykwer also contributing to the film’s excellent score. The mammoth production divided into two units that shot simultaneously sharing the cast. Unsurprisingly, the Wachowski siblings took care of the two futuristic segments, running wild with extremely impressive CGI in the Neo-Seoul segment. They also handle the 1849-set nautical adventure. Tykwer brings his thriller credentials to the fore in the 70s segment, but also directs the lyrical 30s section and the comic present day story.
For the first 20 minutes or so this is as confusing as it sounds, especially as the film opens with a grizzled old man talking gibberish in the dark. The film leaps from one story to the next to bewildering effect. However, things quickly settle into a rhythm, with each story complimenting the others. And despite their vastly different styles and tones, threads of meaning run through all. The protagonist of the first story writes a diary, the diary is read by a character in the second who composes music heard by someone in the third. Each story sets in motion ripples that cascade through time, subtly affecting characters hundreds of years later in ways that are unpredictable. An apparently throwaway remark in one story will foreshadow a major plot twist in a later story. What begins as an atonal cacophony becomes a melody, a comic chase in one story is intercut with a brutal battle in another. It shouldn’t work, but different notes join in tempo like an expertly conducted symphony.
In most multi-stranded narratives there are some stories more interesting or appealing than others. In Cloud Atlas they are all equally compelling, but also highly individual. The editing between the stories is so well judged that you do not instantly want to jump back into one story as it leaps out of a climactic moment in one and into another. As one would expect, the sci-fi sections are visually ravishing and full of excitement. But the most unlikely story, Tykwer’s Ealing-esque contemporary comedy, is one of the most entertaining. In this tale, Broadbent plays a roguish literary agent on the run from associates of a gangster-turned-author who he has fleeced while the writer is incarcerated, before ending up in an old peoples’ home in Scotland that resembles the mental institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When the film cuts from this story, which feels like it could have been directed by Bill Forsyth, to an Apocalypto-influenced thriller in which a tattooed Hanks tries to escape horse riding cannibals led by Grant, and the gears do not grind at all … well, I wanted to stand on my seat and applaud.
The film’s big innovation from the novel will also present the biggest stumbling block to some audiences. The use of the same actors in multiple roles adds extra cohesion to the sprawling narratives, but the success of the make-ups used to change the characters' ethnicities and genders is variable. Many are incredible, rendering actors unrecognisable (there is a handy round-up during the end credits) but occasionally they don’t work at all. There is a particularly bad moment where a Korean actor is asked to play a Mexican immigrant, which frankly looks terrible. Mercifully, it is a very small part. Certainly in the film's early stages this is distracting, but once immersed in the picture I didn’t mind it. Because the film moves so fast, a poor make-up becomes a temporary distraction, rather than a constant irritation (see Hitchcock for an example of the latter).
Also, the acting styles vary greatly; this is nowhere more apparent than with Hanks, who plays serious in several stories and delivers broad comedy in others. I found his oirish/scouse gangster and seedy Scottish hotelier characters hilarious (some people won’t see the joke). I also found the decision in the Neo-Seoul story to give all the characters Asian characteristics provocative. Suggesting a drawing together of races in an evolutionary progression. However, this idea is curiously dropped for the post-apocalypse story which is set over a century later.
The pooled cast all acquit themselves well. Sturgess seems to have become the new Kyle McLachlan and gets to play a character that is essentially neo-Neo. Berry hasn’t been as good as she is here since Monster’s Ball. D’Arcy manages to act his way out from behind some rather stiff ageing makeup. Weaving is terrifying in drag. Broadbent is lovable in one story and despicable in another. Grant is cast against type six times. Korean Bae (The Host, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) is very impressive as a cloned waitress. However, perhaps the finest performance in the film is from Wishaw playing a gay composer in the 1930s, in a story that heavily references Evelyn Waugh, EM Forster and Merchant Ivory. And you can never have enough Keith David, in my opinion.
There are big themes in here – slavery, destiny, love, belief, humanity and inhumanity. Despite this, the film is fleet of foot, never feeling pompous or self important, and consistently entertaining over its near three-hour running time. Not everything works, but it is rare in these days where the bean counters rule to see a film that aims so high made by filmmakers so heroically unafraid of looking foolish.
EXTRAS ★★★ Just a few short featurettes: A Film Like No Other (7:15); Everything Is Connected (8:00); Impossible Adaptation (9:07); The Essence of Acting (7:20); Spaceships, Slaves and Sextets (8:08); The Bold Science Fiction of Cloud Atlas (7:14); and Eternal Recurrence: Love, Life and Longing in Cloud Atlas (7:39).