164 min., dir. by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, with Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent
In hearing others talk about the experience of reading – or attempting to read - Cloud Atlas, there is always one common sentiment: “It’s very confusing at first, but if you can push yourself past the first third, the rest if highly rewarding.” Watching the nearly three-hour magnum opus film based on the book — co-directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer — reflects a similar feeling of confusion throughout even its high points, but when it’s all said in done, I’m left with only one question: “So what?”
Characters from six separate stories taking place in 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144, and 2346 are interwoven into one tale of humanity’s twisted cycle of fate and consequence. There’s no easy way to summarize what you’ll experience if you choose to sit down and watch Cloud Atlas. A poster (maybe more) for the film contains the tagline “Everything is connected,” and even a line from the film referencing the same theory is uttered prominently in the film’s trailer. Congratulations, you now know what Cloud Atlas is about. There’s no gratifying moment of reflective clarity near the end of the film, and there’s nothing surprising to be uncovered. While there’s a high level of confusion to be had within each story, the connecting ties are clear and obvious.
As I understand from a friend who read the novel, the book’s strengths are the revelations contrived from the story-jumping, where new facts affect the reader’s perception of the other stories. The film version of Cloud Atlas seems to focus more on how each story is just the same events within different circumstances. One narration from a character whose story is on-screen will bleed into the action of another story as if it were meant to exist in that specific time frame.
The film’s most endearing gimmick is its most glaring contradiction. Every actor in one story appears as a different character in another, sometimes as major players, sometimes as the homeless guy playing a violin in the rain. It’s fascinating to see how these actors pop up as another sex or different age; even though there are plenty of times that it’s difficult to tell which actor is in which part. Though, as I confirmed with my friend, the book makes no implication that the physical image of the characters from story to story are the same.
The film conveys the idea that there is one single soul being reincarnated in each story. This soul is signified by a reoccurring birthmark that points out the reincarnation. This means that it isn’t the physical properties of a character that lifts them from one story to the next. If the Tom Hanks character from the 2346 story went to Defending Your Life’s “Past Lives Pavilion,” he wouldn’t see himself as the lovesick doctor from the 1973 storyline, but instead as the large-breasted African American reporter (Halle Berry) from the same timeline. Relying on the idea of recycling the physical attributes of your actors defeats the entire idea of a reincarnated soul.
Cloud Atlas has almost nothing amiss in its visual presentation or its actors’ performances. There are instances where it is difficult to clearly understand the actual words coming out of people’s mouths, specifically in the 2346 section where – as my brother pointed out when reading the book – the characters talk like they’re extras fired from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome still trying to find Tomorrow-morrow Land.
Just like Bruce Willis in Looper, Tom Hanks deserves some credit for tackling some very “non-Hanksian” roles here by playing some very dark, politically incorrect bastards. He and many others, who seem to carry a whiff of corny schlock in the trailer, really prove to be in complete control of their varying personalities. Biggest surprise of all though is Hugh Grant, who not only throws out the first American accent (or any accent besides his own) I can ever remember getting from him, he steps into a character or two that are light years from his typical persona. Frankly, it’s hard to even recall him in any role that was not playing off his suave, cheeky debonair. While I didn’t even realize it was him until the credits rolled, his few fleeting moments onscreen as a brooding cannibal warlord who utters not a single line, is a revelation.
However, a proper revelation is what Cloud Atlas is missing. To properly tell the tale as faithfully as it can to the book, its bloated 164-minute running time is warranted. Yet the thematic spin the film has taken has been better explored by films running at 90 minutes. Cloud Atlas the film certainly needed to add a layer of substance to its stories to make it palatable in this form of media, but it’s this attention to more typically explored themes that make it weak. Amongst its religious overtones full of martyrs and JCPs (Jesus Christ Poses), Cloud Atlas seems to miss its own point. The interconnected sections that are supposed to learn from each other, creating a strong chain, instead break those links leaving Cloud Atlas sagging like a wet noodle.
As a final note, it’s important to note the varying effect the film may have on those who have read the novel. There is a lot content from the book that appears in the film in fleeting moments, which don’t carry the weight they do in written form. If you dissect these pieces, they make sense in the world the film creates, but lose their power from lack of expansion. The book swims in an aura of mysterious ambiguity, making the reader doubt whether parts of the whole tale are even real, which aids in playing with the reader’s perception. The film, however, seems to go out of its way to answer some of these questions and plainly point out parts that were better off unanswered. While this doesn’t change my view of the film, it definitely affects the lasting appeal it can have, as the movie delivers enough of the original story to make it capable for one unfamiliar with the book to competently absorb and discuss the main themes. This makes Cloud Atlas successful in a way it may have not been proposed to do. Ultimately, however, the film version’s layout simply works against its own purpose.