Sometimes there’s so much coverage of a movie prior to its release that you can’t help but build up certain preconceptions in your head. The Wachowski siblings latest movie, an adaptation of David Mitchell’s smash hit novel Cloud Atlas which they direct as a trio with Tom Tykwer, has clearly polarised critics and audiences alike. It hasn’t fared too well in the States and is hardly pulling up any trees at the UK box office either. Going in to watch it, I tried to put all preconceptions out of my mind and approach it with a clean slate, but to be honest I feared the worst. Would it be the bloated and ostentatious mess several prominent critics had billed it as? After the credits rolled, I sat back to compute the three hours of time-hopping romance-laden drama and can safely say, I actually rather enjoyed it.
To do a succinct plot synopsis of Cloud Atlas is a challenge in itself but here goes nothing. The movie, like its source material, consists of six interwoven stories spanning six distinct time periods. The book itself operates in a Russian doll style format and works chronologically upwards from the oldest story set in 1849, revealing just half of each arc right up to the one set furthest in the future of 2321. After resolving that final story in its entirety, the novel then works its way back down the years resolving each arc as it goes. The movie meanwhile tackles all six stories at once and intercuts between each one unravelling a little bit more of each tale as we go. The six stories are as follows:
1849: The story of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young lawyer who is travelling home to America via ship after concluding a business deal for his slave trading father in law.
1936: A bisexual young musician, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) travels to Edinburgh to begin work with an elderly composer.
1973: An intrepid journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), starts to uncover a shady conspiracy regarding a potentially unsafe nuclear reactor in California.
2012: A book publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is forced into hiding after being threatened by the thuggish brothers of one of his authors. His own estranged brother tricks him into hiding out at a nursing home where he is kept against his will.
2144: In futuristic Neo-Seoul, a genetically-engineered fabricant, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), is recounting her captor with the story of how she was freed from servitude by an underground band of revolutionaries who are fighting back against the oppressive regime.
2321: Set after a cataclysmic event has befallen Earth, a villager in a primitive society, Zachary (Tom Hanks), faces a daily fight for survival due to roaming cannibalistic tribesman. His life is changed by the arrival of a ‘Prescient’ who believes there is a communications device close to the village that can send a message to an off-world colony for help.
I’ve barely touched the surface there of what each story entails, but to go into much greater detail would frankly just be frustrating for both of us. As each story develops you get a sense that each of our central characters is embroiled in a quest for freedom in some form. Whether it’s opposing slavery, longing for sexual freedom, escaping deranged Hugh Grant cannibals or just being free from a tyrannical nursing home regime, there’s a fight for liberty and justice in some format.
Other themes and motifs also crop up throughout the film. In particular, the concept of reincarnation and the existence of past and future lives is of pivotal importance. The central cast crop up in basically every story arc and there are various nods and winks to their actions in previous lives when they do. Some of these reincarnations are easy to spot, Tom Hanks looks like Tom Hanks no matter what prosthetics are used. However, when after the credits they reveal who each actor played, in each time period, there are definitely a few you may have missed. Whereas some characters are seemingly always inherently good souls, others are inherently evil with Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving always playing dislikeable and evil characters respectively. There are exceptions to this rule however, most prominently in Tom Hanks whose characters go on a bit more of a journey in that regard.
The idea of each life influencing another is also cleverly hinted at by having each earlier story directly influence the one following it. So Adam Ewing’s diaries influence Robert Frobisher when he finds them at the elderly composer’s home, just as his letters to tortured lover Rufus Sixsmith then go on to influence Luisa Rey.
Amongst the various other threads running through the narrative, there is also an emphasis placed on love and destiny and the idea that two people can be bound to one another for all eternity. Now, at this stage, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of movie you’re dealing with here. There are a lot of weighty themes in the melting pot and no single one is really prioritised over any others. I know this has been a source of contention with some viewers who felt that it was too messy and scattershot with its approach. For me though, I really enjoyed this fairly unique approach taken by the directing team. They clearly left a great deal open to interpretation and leave it largely up to the viewer to join up the dots themselves. If you want a clear-cut answer to ‘what does it all mean? You are in for a disappointment. However if you let yourself get absorbed in the audacious story on show and just accept that you won’t put all the pieces together first time, it’s a strangely captivating mosaic of human stories looking at the manner in which we all interconnect.
That isn’t to say however that the film is without its flaws. The jarring shift in tone between the stories, seafaring adventure one minute, light-hearted British sitcom the next, dystopian science fiction eyegasm the one after that, can be a little alienating. I personally didn’t mind it so much, but I completely understand why this would be a negative point for some people as it does make it slightly harder to become overly invested in any one story.
Then there’s the issue of having the principal cast play a variety of races and genders. Some of the time, it works fine, others…..not so much. For example, Ben Whishaw doesn’t convince as a middle aged woman and Jim Sturgess doesn’t really pull off a Korean man too well. While it is fun trying to work out who each actor is playing in any given section, it also proves something of a distraction as you spend a fairly large mount of time focusing on who’s playing who and as a result the story can occasionally fade into the background slightly.
Overall though, there’s far more of Cloud Atlas that works than there is that doesn’t. It can be a little cliché at times and could even be deemed a tad over-indulgent, but as a spectacle it kept me engaged for nearly three hours and kept me thinking long after the credits had rolled. Visually stunning and narratively complex, it’s a bold, high-concept Sci-Fi drama that will no doubt reward upon repeat viewings.