The challenge for the three directors of Cloud Atlas is to keep audiences engaged as six storylines set across more than 500 years are thrown at them at will, rarely pausing in the same period for more than a few minutes. The mosaic approach to reproducing David Mitchell’s novel on screen is admirable, particularly as the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer differ in styles, but divide the storylines between them. The effect is a genre-blending movie which flits almost randomly from one setting to another, yet is all the more arresting for it.
The plotting of Cloud Atlas occurs across six different eras, three for the Wachowski’s and three for Tykwer. The Wachowski’s take the setting aboard a ship on the South Pacific Ocean in 1849 plus Neo Seoul in a fictional future Korea of 2144 and a time even further in the future when the world has returned to a pre-technological state owing to an event called “The Fall”. Tykwer directs the periods inbetween: the UK in 1936 and 2012 along with San Francisco in 1973. Many of the actors involved including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent and Jim Sturgess have multiple roles that span these periods, an early indication of the film’s central theme that ours souls are connected.
Taken alone, the six settings offer their fair share of intrigue. The ship sailing the South Pacific Ocean in 1849 sees an American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) taken advantage of by a devious doctor (Tom Hanks) and attempting to protect a slave stowaway (David Gyasi). The 1936 segment sees a bisexual English musician (Ben Whishaw) compose a masterpiece “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” at a composer’s house (Jim Broadbent). In San Francisco a journalist (Halle Berry) is seeking to uncover a conspiracy about a nuclear reactor with help from scientists (Hanks and James D’Arcy) while a hitman (Hugo Weaving) works on keeping everything a secret.
The contemporary setting in the UK in 2012 has a 65-year-old publisher (Broadbent) tricked into being put in a nursing home by his brother (Hugh Grant). In the 2144 Korea future a genetically-engineered clone server at a restaurant (Doona Bae) is interviewed about her links to a rebel movement while in the more distant future sees a primitive society visited by a more advanced culture for reasons that become clearly linked to The Fall.
A genre-blending movie which flits almost randomly from one setting to another, yet is all the more arresting for it.
Anyone of these threads would have made for a compelling movie alone – or perhaps a mini series – and perhaps would have benefited from being played out as a whole rather than spliced together, but the visual flair with which the trio of directors have shot their pieces means you are never confused as to where you are even if seeing Hugo Weaving in drag is a little disconcerting and Hugh Grant as a gangster boss borders on the laughable. Tykwer’s sections are modestly shot, but they seeming fittingly so such is the time periods and experiences we can easily relate to. Frobisher’s story is the most compelling while the publisher’s plight is the lightest of the six, often approaching the inconsequential high jinks of a Last of the Summer Wine episode.
The Wachowski’s go to town with their segments, the Korean future all flying car cashes, gunfights and futurist visions while post-Fall landscape echoes a Planet of the Apes setting. The South Pacific Ocean is a dark story well constructed with clear social commentary but it is San Francisco part which holds them all together as that is the crossover point for many of the characters and requires close following to get the most from its often dry subject.
For all its grand narratives, Cloud Atlas frustrates in part owing to a reliance on tenuous links between the characters which could never be fully explored even in a film touching three hours, and also because Berry and Hanks are so inconsistent with their abundance of screen time. You wonder at times if they are baffled by it all, meanwhile Grant just seems to want to play his roles as if they were from a pantomime. Weaving does his usual death stares and gravelly voice of impending doom, yet there are highlights such as Whishaw’s composer and Bae’s rebel clone.
While the majority of the film treads the line between success and failure, the score is a rousing success. Composed by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil who won a Golden Globe Award for their efforts, the music provides much of the emotion as it is the undercurrent that runs through the movie providing an audio motif to much of the action as well as being directly related to Robert Frobisher’s story. That’s the tricky thing about Cloud Atlas, it may not work as a whole, but you’ll come away with plenty to ponder and appreciate among all the stories which is perhaps the point of the film all along: some life experiences will touch you forever, others may seem irrelevant as time passes.