“Everything is connected” runs the rather unimaginative tagline for Cloud Atlas, a troubled, difficult but admirably ambitious fantasy/science fiction/drama feature, financed by a variety of German sources. The film, adapted from the highly regarded novel by British author David Mitchell, began life as a project of Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who co-wrote the screenplay with the Wachowskis. Soon the trio agreed to co-direct the film, with Tykwer taking half of the film’s six inter-connected storylines, and the siblings taking the other three.
The generations-spanning tales of Cloud Atlas, loosely tied together by texts within the film, themes, and shared casting, are as follows:
- Following a successful slave deal in the Pacific Islands in 1849, a young lawyer (Jim Sturgess) sails back to America, but the voyage becomes a perilous one after he contracts a serious illness.
- In 1936, a Cambridge student of music (Ben Whishaw), disinherited by his father for being gay, flees to Scotland, where he teams up with a retired composer, but finds their collaboration inspiring his own opus.
- In 1970s San Francisco, a plucky reporter (Halle Berry) uncovers a conspiracy at a newly opened nuclear power station.
- A publisher (Jim Broadbent) in London in 2012 checks into a hotel recommended by his grudge-addled brother, only to find he has signed himself into a nursing home and cannot escape.
- In a dystopian future Seoul, Sonmi 451 (Doona Bae), a genetically enhanced clone designed only for fast-food service, discovers she can be more than her DNA demands, and joins an underground resistance movement.
- After the fall of civilisation, a goatherd (Tom Hanks) and his tribe of noble savages, who worship Sonmi as a god, live in fear of the barbaric hordes on their island as well as scientifically advanced visitors from across the sea.
Eschewing the book’s segmented rise and fall structure, in favour of intercutting between the six storylines, works in the film’s favour. It allows for some clever montage work, with narrative monologues stretching the story’s themes across the time divides. It also increasing the tension of certain action sequences by cutting them up with their equivalents in other times and places.
Of course, this intercutting leaves Cloud Atlas open to swathes of narrative imbalance. The 2012 storyline is so flippant it could be a Richard Curtis film – there’s plenty to enjoy in it, but its tiny scale is reduced to nothingness by the sky-cycle chases of Neo Seoul. The film spends nearly thrice as long detailing Tom Hanks’s adventures after the fall as it does in Jim Sturgess’s cabin on the voyage to America. Halle Berry’s storyline is paced like a trashy airport novel (a manuscript based on it is seen being considered by Jim Broadbent in the present), which works within itself but often jars when we return to other less genre-fixated storylines.
The casting is mostly strong, with only Hanks struggling at times to break free of typecast expectations. Ben Whishaw is admirably passionate. James D’Arcy, playing the only character to appear in two of the stories, transfers from youthful exuberance to bittersweet elderly nostalgia adeptly, with the help of some excellent makeup. Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon deserve credit just for turning up. Hugo Weaving manages a new feat by stealing the film six times, in one story as a ruthless hitman, elsewhere a hallucinated manifestation of madness and evil, and again in full drag and fat suit, as the Nurse Ratched to Jim Broadbent’s Randle McMurphy.
Some of the multi-casting is confusing. Halle Berry appears briefly as a slave in the 1840s – are we to believe she is an ancestor, or a pre-incarnation of her ’70s character? If Tom Hanks is a reluctant hero in both the ’70s and after the fall, why would he be a psychotic Irish gangster in 2012? (the less said about that accent the better)
There is no denying that Tykwer and the Wachowski’s ambition got the better of them at times. Neo Seoul is all-too Blade Runner meets Minority Report. A scene charged with homoeroticism comes sadly laughably out of left field. The hybrid language of the people living after the fall often causes the ear to strain so hard to understand that the muscles in the back of your neck begin to seize up.
But the script is full of beautiful moments and flourishes of Mitchell’s language, and the themes – free will, doing what is right, and being more than what you are told you can be – are nicely fleshed out, even if they are not exactly revelatory.
Despite being directed in two chunks, Tykwer and the Wachowski’s film always looks and feels like the creation of one storyteller, a testament to their collaboration. Tom Tykwer’s score, composed with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, deserves special mention for tying so much of the action together, and never feeling out of place in any world or time.
Its problems are many, but the sheer ambition and scope of Cloud Atlas makes it a worthy recommendation, far closer to Griffith’s Intolerance than Bill Forsyth’s Being Human.
Like recent visual splendours such as The Fall and The Fountain, which were similarly brought down by the weight of their own aspirations, Cloud Atlas’ appeal will not be great, but its small band of supporters will be fearsomely passionate about it. It will quite likely become a must-see for young students interested in philosophical films of supposed depth, regardless of what substances they consume to watch it.
More than anything else, Cloud Atlas should be noted for maintaining interest across its extreme length of nearly three hours, rarely losing one’s interest, even if that interest is severe dislike.