The original novel upon which Cloud Atlas is based told six separate stories that somehow bridged together to make one whole. The book was a huge success and upon publication won several prestigious awards. Because of the structure and the several interlocking stories, many considered the novel unfilmable. They were right.
The book told the stories separately, but the film’s approach is to tell all six stories at the same time, cutting from one to the other, jumping time and location, framed at the beginning and end by Tom Hanks as an aged man with a craggy and scarred face, telling the tales to a small but attentive audience under a starry night sky.
The theme is the exploration of reincarnation and how acts of the past can affect what we do in the future. With the talent involved and the high-production values throughout, the trailer to Cloud Atlas gives the impression we’re about to see something incredibly profound and important, but what we end up with is a bloated mess that fails to show why the six stories have any kind of real connection, with the exception that they’re all played out by the same actors in six different roles.
Part of the problem is with the film’s style. I’m sure there were plenty of discussions between the three directors, Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski, as to how to film a seemingly unfilmable book and what approach needed to be taken. I can’t help wondering whether it would have been a better idea to have kept to the style of the novel – six separate stories that morph from one to the other – rather than telling them concurrently. The issue with the film’s approach is that you often find yourself involved with the events and conflicts of one story when all of a sudden it cuts away to begin something else. You sit there waiting for a satisfying conclusion to one plot but find yourself having to concentrate on something different. It’s very frustrating.
The film can boast a great cast. There’s no denying there’s an element of enjoyment to be had seeing ‘A’ list performers like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and perhaps the biggest surprise of all, Hugh Grant repeatedly turning up under layers of prosthetics as different characters, but at the same time it’s also annoying. The false noses are not as effective as they should be, the various accents employed are not always successful – the odd version of English that Hanks and Berry speak in a futuristic setting is frankly silly – and the fact that we can’t always determine who is who renders the idea of having famous names unrecognizable a waste of time. If the idea is to show how through the ages we all live several lives, what is the point if we don’t recognize the actor?
There’s no denying the ambition of the project or its epic scope, plus the story of Jim Broadbent’s character trying to escape the confines of an old people’s home and the sci-fi adventure of a woman cloned to a life of servitude reminiscent of a Blade Runner replicant are emotionally engaging and generally fun to watch, but is the finished product really what the directors had always intended? With a running time of almost three hours, Cloud Atlas is a heck of a long slog with little payoff. I wished it worked, but it doesn’t.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 163 minutes Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)