To talk about Cloud Atlas, the movie, you can’t help but talk about Cloud Atlas, the book – David Mitchell’s 2004 work, which is less a conventional novel than an entertaining box of narratives. Comprised of six nested stories, it’s set in different historical periods, from the 19th-century to hundreds of years in the future, in a pastiche of literary styles echoing Herman Melville, Christopher Isherwood, a seventies’ airport novel, a contemporary comic memoir, and two kinds of dystopian science fiction. The stories are linked by themes: the Nietzschean ideas of eternal recurrence and will to power, repeated stories of confinement and friendship leading to liberation.
The movie Cloud Atlas is also tremendously ambitious: a $100-million, almost three-hour European-produced film, which has been considered a test case for trying to create a blockbuster outside of Hollywood. Directed by the sibling team of Andy and Lana Watchowski (The Matrix) and German director Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run), it’s a time-travelling, globe-hopping extravaganza, with an ensemble of actors playing a multitude of parts.
In contrast to Mitchell’s novel, the game here is less spot-the-genre than spot-the-star. The core 11 actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae and Keith David – pop up under different layers of makeup and prosthetic hair, noses and teeth, blurring differences of race, age and gender.
The six stories unfold in fragments and are presented channel-hopping style. In 1850, young American lawyer Adam Ewing (Sturgess) keeps a journal while sailing on a ship in the South Pacific and slowly being poisoned by a doctor (Hanks). In the 1930s, a young composer, Robert Frobisher (Wishaw) reads Ewing’s journal while he writes letters to his gay lover in England. Frobisher is also working as an amanuensis for a despotic composer (Broadbent) who wants to take credit for Frobisher’s composition, Cloud Atlas Sextet.
Jump forward to 1973. In San Francisco, an investigative reporter Luisa Rey (Berry) reads Frobisher’s letters and listens to his recording. She also risks death for exposing the secrets of a faulty nuclear facility. A novel about her exploits lands in the hands of London publisher Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent), who finds himself confined to a senior’s home, where he organizes a Ealing Comedy-style breakout with the other aged inmates.
Zoom ahead to Korea in 2144: A cyborg named Sonmi-451 (Bae) sees a fragment of a movie about Cavendish’s confinement, which inspires her to struggle for human status. In the distant radiation-ruined future, a Hawaiian tribesman, Zachry (Hanks) is contacted by Meronym (Berry), a representative of the remnants of an advanced civilization, who seeks his help to save what’s left of the human race.
There are a number of hitches along the way. In theory, the mutable actors in their many roles are a provocative illustration of the fluidity of identity. In practice, the make-up work is crudely theatrical.
There are moments of tenderness, even wonder, in the individual stories. The Wachowski siblings direct the earliest sea-going tale and two future segments. Of these, the strongest is the Sonmi-451 sequence, largely thanks to the visual design and Bae’s cooly dignified comportment. Tykwer does the three chronological middle stories, the best of which is the thirties sequence, with Wishaw as a decadent young wastrel, redeemed by love and art.
But these felicitous moments can’t break through the dark nebula of self-importance around Cloud Atlas, an issue that Mitchell’s book nimbly avoided. The ideas in the novel were deliberately recycled; the reward was found in the writing style. In the movie, the reverse is true. The pop mysticism of ideas is assertively in the foreground, as all the stories progress toward a familiar sci-fi allegory of catastrophe and enlightenment. As it unfolds, Cloud Atlas becomes preachy, with repeated scenes of Sonmi-451 intoning: “Our lives are not our own …”
The last hour feels particularly overbearing, as the filmmakers work to cram together chase scenes, revenge scenarios and redemptive moments from the different story strands. Even at three hours, the film feels truncated, which raises the question of whether the entire adaptation exercise might have chosen the wrong form. Stretched out to 10 or 12 hours on cable television, Cloud Atlas, the series, would be the talk of the fall television season, and the stories, rather than the thematic scaffolding, would be the right focus of attention.