Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski, directors and scriptwriters based on the novel by David Mitchell
Starring: Tom Hanks (Dr. Henry Goose/Isaac Sachs/Dermot Higgins/Zachry Bailey), Halle Berry (N’Fera/Jocasta Ayrs/Luisa Rey/Ovid/Meronym), Jim Broadbent (Vyvyan Ayrs/Timothy Cavendish/Prescient), Hugo Weaving (Haskell Moore/Tadeusz Kesselring/Bill Smoke/Nurse Noakes/Mephi/Old Georgie), Jim Sturgess (Adam Ewing/Lloyd Hooks/Hae-Joo Chang/Adam Bailey), Doona Bae (Tilda Ewing/Mexican Woman/Sonmi-451), Ben Whishaw (Robert Frobisher/Geogette Noakes), James D’Arcy (Rufus Sixsmith/Nurse James/Wing-027/Sloosha), Susan Sarandon (Madame Horrox/Ursula/Abbess), Hugh Grant (Reverend Horrox/Alberto Grimaldi/Seer Rhee/Cannibal)
Cloud Atlas, the David Mitchell novel that inspired the duo who made The Matrix trilogy and their German friend who directed the very cool Run, Lola, Run, is a highly praised book, but it had been considered—even by the author—as being unfilmable. That it was made at all has generated lots of high profile ink. Aleksandar Hemon wrote a brilliant piece in the New Yorker about the long and difficult roads the directing and writing trio of the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer had to journey to make a $100 million dollar Indie film. The New York Times covered Cloud Atlas extensively in a major Sunday arts section piece. It’s the kind of buzz necessary for a very, very expensive art film to be successful.
Rebellion in a dystopian future, post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, high sea adventure, paranoid thriller, dark comedy
Six stories are recounted. In the 1850s, an American is nearly poisoned to death by a doctor out to get his money. In the 1930s Depression-era, a young composer collaborates with a much older one—with dire results. In the 1970s, a writer investigates whether the owners of a local nuclear power plant are covering up whether their facility is safe or not. In the near future, a British publisher locked up against his will in a senior’s home run by sadists plans an escape. In a dystopian future, a clone working at a restaurant becomes the inspiration for a rebellion. In the far distant future after an apocalypse, a goat herder and someone from the last vestiges of civilization find out how humanity had collapsed.
The directing trio have taken these six stories and managed to tell them bit-by-bit in an imaginative manner.
Memorable to awful—and often by the same people. Part of the conceit of the film is to cast the same actors in a variety of roles to dramatise one of the central ideas of the Mitchell novel—that the characters in these quite diverse stories are the same souls reincarnated. (Though not in each tale.)
So Tom Hanks plays an evil doctor (badly), a nuclear physicist (blandly) and a goat herder (very well). Halle Berry is quite convincing as an idealistic journalist and a representative of the last remaining group of civilized creatures but she’s not much as a beautiful muse to a two composers. Hugo Weaving is astonishing as a devil in the apocalyptic future but just silly as a mean nurse in a nursing home. And so it goes. (Hold on, that’s Vonnegut lingo, not Mitchell’s.)
The directors, the writers and the skinny
There’s much to admire in Cloud Atlas. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have succeeded in telling six stories all cut together into an elaborate conceptual puzzle. After decades of channel switching, at last a movie has been made that harnesses the quick reactions and narrative understanding of many viewers.
But the stories often feel forced and arbitrary and the idea that characters migrate from one body to another throughout time seems romantic and maddeningly foolish. It’s an idea that the 19th century Romantics loved—and quite frankly, it’s not “new” or “fresh” at all.
Mitchell’s philosophy, which includes a notion that most human beings will exploit everyone else if given half a chance is hardly revolutionary either. It’s bleak and conservative.
It’s not his ideas that worked in the novel. What made Cloud Atlas special was the intricate structure and Mitchell’s prose.
Though the Wachowskis, in particular, are stylish, this film can’t overcome the difficulties that a three-hour film imposes on an audience—and on critics. You can pick up a novel and let it go. There’s no motivation to read it in one sitting. In that way, a book never imposes itself on you in the way that movies do.
Watching Cloud Atlas on screen, you want to be believe that you’re embracing a masterpiece. And it isn’t. But the parts are often compelling and the achievements of the directing-writing team are considerable. Bottom line? Cloud Atlas isn’t a total success but it’s certainly more than an ambitious failure. If you can handle watching a three-hour film, it’s certainly worth a viewing.