Another month, another unfilmable film. Last year, Ang Lee proved that the term ‘unfilmable’ was now somewhat obsolete after turning Yann Martel’s Life of Pi into a spectacular piece of filmmaking. Now we have Cloud Atlas, another book that many deemed impossible to transition from page to screen.
Cloud Atlas has one of the most convoluted plots you could imagine. In fact, it has six different plots being told simultaneously that span various locations and lifespans. The plots range from 19th century voyages on the high seas to 1970s San Fransisco nuclear energy politics to hundreds of years in the future with most of the global population wiped out. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface but to go into more detail about the six plots would literally double the length of this review. Needless to say, the scope of Cloud Atlas is epic and requires every drop of your attention throughout its rather lengthy three hour run time.
The film flicks between the six stories reasonably often and it can initially be rather disorientating and overwhelming trying to keep track of what’s going on. That the primary actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Wishaw, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Hugh Grant, and others) play different roles in each story, all dressed and made up differently for each role, also adds to the initial confusion. However, this soon dispels and it becomes easier to follow the stories. In fact, that the film does change story so often actually keeps you more engaged.
There are various themes running throughout Cloud Atlas but the one that is most prescient is the connection of souls through different lifetimes, hence the decision to have the same actors play different roles. It is fascinating to see how actions in one story affect those in others. However, there are such huge ideas here and so many characters and plot lines to keep track of that it does feel as if the story and its ideas are simply too big for the film. Multiple viewings are almost mandatory to fully appreciate the various subtleties in each story and to see how they are linked together. Trying to piece everything together is a nigh on impossible task. It may well be sensible to simply abandon trying to work everything out, particularly on first viewing, and simply let it wash over you. Try and think too much about what you’re seeing and you’ll likely miss something important.
Each of the six stories is engaging in its own way and they vary wildly in tone. Post nuclear fallout cannibalistic tribes one minute and a group of pensioners organising an escape from a retirement home the next, Cloud Atlas certainly isn’t lacking variety. The visual effects are also outstanding, with Neo Seoul 2144 in particular looking stunning, although the make up and prosthetics used do vary in quality.
The performances are generally strong although some do get to express themselves a little more than others. Jim Broadbent and Halle Berry are rarely stretched although both Tom Hanks’ and Hugo Weaving’s characters are vastly different (the less said about Hanks’ Irish accent the better, however). Ben Wishaw is also excellent as bisexual composer Robert Frobisher who’s fated relationship with partner Robert Sixsmith is one of the most touching moments of the film.
Once the credits role on Cloud Atlas, it may well take a while for it all to sink in. There are times when the various stories’ connections are just a little too subtle, weakening the link between and, consequently, the effectiveness of the film as a whole. Directors Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski deserve great credit for attempting such a daunting task of bringing this to the screen and for the most part it’s an incredibly engaging piece of cinema. However, its themes and scale too often seem too grand for even a three hour film.