People often read reviews of things to work out whether it’s something they themselves will like, and in that sense Cloud Atlas is review-proof. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about this film, you still won’t have any idea whether you yourself will like it until you actually see it with your own eyes. You might love it and think it the best film of all time, or may hate it and consider it the worst film ever made. Neither reaction would surprise me; the only response that would is one of indifference.
Adapted from the famously unfilmable novel by David Mitchell (the writer, not the actor/comedian/TV personality), Cloud Atlas tries to stick to the core text of the book but also takes great liberties with its unique structure of six ‘nesting’ stories. In the book you get the first half of each story in turn before dropping down into the next one, and then the latter part of the novel comes back up through the conclusions of each story in reverse order to show how they fit together and interlink into one thematic whole.
Sure enough, all six stories from the book are still present in the film: there’s the 1849 South Pacific sea voyage of young lawyer Adam Ewing on slave trade business for his father-in-law; a 1930s Britain section following young musician Robert Frobisher who goes to work for an elderly famous composer; a 1973 tale of journalist Luisa Rey’s investigation into the safety of a San Francisco nuclear power plant; a modern broad comedy featuring the misadventures of publisher Timothy Cavendish in London 2012; a near-future tale featuring the plight of clones in corporate-dominated Neo Seoul in 2144; and a post-catastrophe world where civilisation has collapsed and small tribes fight for survival with other feral human survivors, a stark warning about where our own current ‘dog-eat-dog’ selfish approach to life might ultimately take us as a society and as a species.
So what’s changed from page to screen? Film adaptations usually have to dumb down source texts to make them work on screen, but this film does the opposite and makes it wildly more complex. Concerned that a linear progression from one story to the next wouldn’t work with a filmgoing audience and would instead feel like a disconnected anthology of portmanteau films, writer/directors Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) instead restructure the story into interleaving strips. At first they go easy on us and give as reasonable-size chunks to allow us to orientate ourselves, but pretty soon all bets are off and the film is jumping from one story to another with increasing frenzy. Nor does the editing follow any of the usual narrative conventions: instead it’s trying to make connections between related themes within the individual stories so that the film may jump from one story to another to another and back again based purely on emotional or conceptual links. In one case, a character walking through a door in one story jumps without ceremony to a different character played by the same actor walking through a different door in a story set hundreds of years apart.
Ahh yes, the same actor. Here we get to the filmmakers’ biggest, riskiest, most controversial and most audacious artistic gambit, the one that will make or break most people’s reaction to the end work. For despite there being six profoundly different stories on display here, the same core group of actors is used – in different roles – in each. For example, Jim Sturgess plays Adam Ewing, but he also turns up as a 1930s hotel guest, a Scottish football fan in a pub in 2012, a Neo Seoul revolutionary and a post-civilisation tribesman; Ben Whishaw plays Robert Frobisher but also features as a 1849 cabin boy, a 1970s record store clerk and as Georgette in 2012; Hugo Weaving shows up as Ewing’s father-in-law, as a 1970s hired assassin, a Nurse Ratchett-style nursing home tyrant and a nightmarish spirit-apparition in the far future; James D’Arcy plays Frobisher’s lover in the 1930s, an older version of the same character in 1973 and then a Korean interrogator in 2144; Jim Broadbent appears as the captain of the 19th century ship Ewing is sailing on, the composer Vyvyan Ayrs for whom Frobisher goes to work, and as the comedically assailed Timothy Cavendish – and that’s just a few of their respective roles. Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon show up in generously low-key supporting roles, but the two big stars with conspicuous parts in all six stories are Tom Hanks (who seemingly can’t say no to an opportunity to play multiple roles in a film these days) and Halle Berry. Berry prominently plays the 1970s reporter Luisa Rey and Hanks shows up as one of her whistle-blowing sources, but it’s in the post-apocalyptic section that they really finally team-up together in a fight for survival.
Considering that the film’s overarching message is about links and connections across time and space, about history repeating itself and the ripples of someone’s actions in one time having an effect on the others, and also about reincarnation and the continuity of a person’s essence, this reuse of the same players has artistic merit and is undoubtedly justified. It reinforces the idea that each is playing the same soul across the centuries, hence Whishaw’s store clerk in 1970s San Francisco is inexplicably obsessed by and familiar with the recording of a little-known classical piece of work composed by Robert Frobisher, the character Whishaw played in the previous story. Sometimes the ripples flow backwards: the piece of music Frobisher composes is first heard by a character played by Jim Broadbent in 2144 Neo Seoul in a context explicitly recalled by Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent again) in a dream in 1936. Still with me? Good.
So on paper at least, this ‘multiple casting’ appears to be a brilliant cinematic coup, and indeed keeping the same core repertory group of actors throughout does help keep the film cohesive and intelligible in the way that a massive sprawling cast simply wouldn’t have done. But it’s at the cost of the audience continually getting pulled out of the story by suddenly recognising Hanks in a new piece of prosthetics, or realising that Autua the stowaway slave in 1849 is played by the same person (David Gyasi) who is now in charge of a futuristic sailing ship in the future, having also featured as journalist Luisa Rey’s inspirational father.
And some of these makeovers are more successful than others. Hanks, for example, really can pull off the multiple-role challenge rather well, going from a grotesque ship’s doctor in 1849 to looking most like his usual self in the post-fall future. Some you won’t even be able to notice, not least because their part in a particular story is so fleeting. But others do start to become a case of ‘spot the really obvious make-up,’ and the worst case of this in the film is the Neo Seoul section in which the Asian actors (Doona Bae impressive as Somni, Zhou Xun in support as Yoona) are supplemented by the Caucasian actors including Strugess, Weaving and D’Arcy made up to look Korean. Not only does the end result look very weird in each case – looking more Romulan than Korean as a whole – there’s an distinctly ‘non-PC’ Charlie Chan discomfort to it for a modern audience. While it’s justified by the film’s concept and Bae herself gets to play different ethnicities in the other stories to show that it’s an equal opportunities conceit, it’s noticeable that they didn’t dare even consider ‘blacking-up’ any of the white actors for corresponding African-American roles – thank goodness.
With so many different roles it’s hard to give a firm ‘grade’ to the performances. As the stars of their respective segments, Sturgess, Whishaw, Berry, Broadbent, Bae and Hanks are all universally excellent. Broadbent, Keith David, Sturgess and Berry also put in strong major supporting roles in second segments. Hanks wins the award as most active and diverse player with important if not necessarily always large roles throughout, although Broadbent comes close to stealing the show with his own string of appearances. Hugo Weaving also gets a part in each of the six plots but they are fairly minor in each case and his performances also tend to be the most problematic, although usually through the filmmakers’ choices rather than the actor himself. And it would have been nice to see more of Whishaw, who is absolutely terrific in his 1930s strand but disappointingly underused elsewhere.
Multiple roles aside, the film’s other trouble stems more from the source book, in which every part is written in a different distinct literary style. The film attempts to do the same by aping different cinematic genres but this leads to a lazy shorthand: the 1849 section feels like a truncated Master and Commander, the 1930s segment is British period drama along the lines of Brideshead Revisisted, the Luisa Rey story is a loving recreation of the great 1970s conspiracy thrillers, the Neo Seoul section is a clear riff on Blade Runner, and the final section with its hard-to-get-into stylised pigeon English is reminiscent of Mad Max, Waterworld or The Postman.
The section that really sticks out like a sore thumb is the modern day escapades of Timothy Cavendish, which is played like a British sitcom requiring big, unsubtle comedic performances. As a result it’s easy to look at Weaving’s cross-dressing Nurse Noakes and Hank’s gangster-author Dermot Hoggins as being utterly lamentable career-worst work – but that’s because such broad light entertainment/variety performances play so jarringly against the straight, earnest dramatic portrayals elsewhere. In the book you have some time to get into the swing of the comedy story, but here you might get only one brief scene before you’re back into the drama on the high seas or in the middle of a hi-tech chase through Neo Seoul. You’re lucky if you don’t get whiplash, let alone manage any sort of grip on the required sense of humour.
The most unfortunate thing of all about this chopped-up narrative/multiple parts per actor/motley assemblage of styles is that the audience is left continually looking for the next significant plot linkage, the next persona for each of the actors, and trying to work out what’s serious and real and what’s humour and fantasy. Not only is this rather tiring but it means you’re no longer experiencing the film on an emotional level, seeing it instead as a cinematic box of tricks to pick over. It’s not surprising that as a result people tend to say that they enjoy it more the second time they watch it, when they have a better grip on what’s going on and are less distracted by the stylistic baubles hung on the tree by the filmmakers. Others will never get to that point as it takes a very generous viewer to get over the initial hump.
All of which is why in the end no one can tell you whether or not the finished result will work for you. It’s a film you have to see for yourself to be sure, although there’s by no means any guarantee that you won’t hate it and resent every one of the 172 minutes you spend in front of it – let alone the notion of contemplating giving it a repeat chance to see whether it gets ‘better’ second time around! That’s because, for better or worse, there’s never been a film quite like Cloud Atlas and therefore nothing to properly compare it to.
To be honest, I rather admire that. That sort of ambition to risk going (if you’ll pardon the expression) ‘where no one has gone before’ in film is such a rare thing these days that I’m prepared to cut it some extra slack and go along with it where I wouldn’t normally do so with something turgidly mainstream. So yes, the multiple roles for the actors can be distracting, but it can also work; the makeup and the cross-ethnicity/cross-gender casting can be jarring and unnerving, but there are some great performances as a result; the blending of storytelling styles might not always be successful but it’s also certainly never dull. And ultimately the film is not as deep, meaningful or profound as it likes to think it is – the interconnectedness of all things is hardly a new idea and many critics took against the ‘New Age’-y cod-philosophy. Not having read Mitchell’s book I can’t say whether the film has changed or over-simplified his original ideas or whether it’s a case of a novel in 2004 already having been overtaken by mainstream thinking. (It does, however, answer the altogether different question of ‘Can I see and understand this film if I haven’t read the book?’ because not having done so didn’t impede my viewing.)
Cloud Atlas may end up on your list of ‘best films of the year’; or equally it may make your ‘worst films of all time’ roll of shame. You’ll have to see it for yourself to know because other people’s opinions don’t mean a thing in this case. But if you really want to know what I myself thought of the film despite that caveat, then here’s the bottom line: I was mesmerised, fascinated, captivated and in the end almost entirely won over by it, huge gaping flaws and all. It’s been less than 24 hours since I watched it, and already I’m itching for a second run. The only real regret I have is that it’s such a unique film that there really is nothing similar to move onto afterwards.
On the Blu-ray: a gorgeous high-resolution picture whether it’s for a period setting in the bright and sunny South Pacific or a dreary pre-war Britain, or the eye-popping futurism of Neo Seoul. Hard to find anything to criticise about it, with a nice fine grain pattern keeping the whole thing looking authentically real rather than overly polished to an artificial sheen. The sound is also terrific, although I did have to resort to the subtitles in order to follow the far-future post-fall stylised dialogue. Since the film itself is almost three hours long and there’s only one disc, there’s not a huge amount of room for special feature so these are limited to seven middling behind-the-scenes EPG-style ‘focus points’ which are eminently missable – but then we hardly expected a director’s commentary from the Wachowskis, now did we?
Cloud Atlas was released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 1, 2013.