Why would anyone think that a book as lengthy and as complex as Cloud Atlas could be adapted into a workable movie? David Mitchell’s dense, epoch-spanning novel is perhaps an example of the what can be achieved in prose but not necessarily on a big screen: multiple characters, disparate time lines, and philosophical themes about death and the Dirk Gently-like interconnectedness of all things.
Attempting to summarise Cloud Atlas in a paragraph is nigh on impossible, with the opening half hour skipping along with the dizzying momentum of a haunted television – the channel keeps changing, and you can only guess what you’ll end up seeing next.
The story begins in the far-flung future, with a campfire tale recounted by Tom Hanks, scowling beneath a considerable amount of old man makeup. From there, we’re introduced to Ben Whishaw’s well-spoken Robert Frobisher, a musician in 1930s England, who works as an amanuensis for a noted composer played by Jim Broadbent. Then there’s Halle Berry’s reporter in 70s America, who’s investigating Hugh Grant’s sinister nuclear reactor magnate. Then we’re on a ship in the 19th century, then late 21st century Korea, then the 24th century again.
Cloud Atlas moves rapidly and almost seamlessly between these different moments in time, where the same actors play different characters in each scenario – the idea being that each character’s actions has an indirect impact on the next. Jim Broadbent, who plays the 1930s composer, also appears as a publisher in the present day. Hugo Weaving, true to form, shows up in every epoch as an antagonist in different guises, whether it’s a ruthless contract killer in the 70s, an apologist for the slave trade in the 19th century, or most terrifyingly of all, a stern Nurse Noakes in the present.
So heavily made up are some of these actors, spotting them in each timeline turns into a sort of Where’s Wally mini-game. Look, there’s Ben Whishaw as a bearded shopkeeper. Here’s Hugh Grant as a vicious tattooed post-apocalyptic chieftain. And isn’t that Susan Sarandon as an old man with a robot eye? My God, I think it is.
Perhaps inevitably, some of these performances are better than others. Tom Hanks is good value as a conniving 19th century doctor with big teeth, but is rather out of his depth when asked to play a violent Irish novelist. Hugo Weaving makes a surprisingly good nurse, but the heavy facial prosthetics used to turn him into a late-21st-century Korean bureaucrat is rather distracting.
The result of all this dress-up – and filmmakers’ considerable use of green screen effects – is a film that feels almost dreamlike in its unreality, like a philosophical Mighty Boosh. Casting different actors for each part, rather than recycling them, may have resulted in a more grounded-looking ensemble movie, like Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, for example. But this clearly isn’t the path the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (who all gamely wrote, directed and produced) wanted to take; with its ‘ripples through time’ underlying theme, Cloud Atlas shifts madly from dark to light, from tear-jerking romance to abrupt bloodshed, from bleak drama to levity.
For some, the constant swing between different times and tones may prove too much, and this is perhaps why Cloud Atlas has polarised critical opinion so far. In attempting to be broadly humorous, thrilling and philosophical, the film finds itself in an odd middle ground, where pop-existential ponderings, Matrix slow-mo shoot-outs and Benny Hill-like moments of slapstick in an old folks’ home are bizarrely intercut.
Depending on how cynical you’re feeling, you could also argue that, with a three-hour duration, the film takes a long time to get across its feel-good messages about goodness, badness and the value of human life. But at the same time, there’s never a moment where Cloud Atlas drags; the decision to constantly cut between stories (a technique handled differently from the novel) works extremely well, and even though some moments are many times better than others, the film sweeps along on its own batty momentum.
Against considerable odds, Tykwer and the Wachowskis have managed to wrestle this behemoth of modern writing into an entertaining movie. Sprawling, perplexing, sometimes beautiful but often kitsch, Cloud Atlas is a true oddity. It’s flawed, but there’s an urgency and vigour in its storytelling that is strangely beguiling. It’s the closest thing we have to a 21st century Zardoz, and that’s surely a good thing.