There is nobility in striving for a cause that seems foolhardy, toward a goal that—if reached—could bring greater joy and understanding to the world. That’s one of the many ideas bubbling through the sprawling Cloud Atlas, yet it’s also pretty clearly a way of thinking about the project itself. David Mitchell’s 2004 novel seems like it should be unfilmable, with its six semi-stand-alone stories that span centuries from the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic world. You’d have to be slightly nuts to think three different directors—The Matrix trilogy’s Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer—could wrangle that material into something that works as a cohesive three-hour cinematic experience instead of a frantic, over-ambitious cacophony.
Yet here we are, charging through these stories with a feverish intensity that suggests the filmmakers believed they could make everything hold together through sheer force of will. Multiple actors play multiple roles across the multiple narratives, beginning with an 1849-set tale about an attorney (Jim Sturgess) sailing through the South Pacific with a stowaway Maori (David Gyasi). In 1936, disinherited ne’er-do-well Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) takes a position transcribing music for an ailing celebrated composer (Jim Broadbent). An investigative reporter (Halle Berry) in 1973 California courts danger by looking into the safety of a new nuclear power plant. In present-day London, a book publisher (Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a facility for seniors. Genetically engineered servant Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae), in a corporate-dictatorship South Korea circa 2144, becomes part of an underground rebellion. And on the Big Island of Hawaii, after an unspecified catastrophe, a primitive villager (Tom Hanks) is visited by a representative (Berry) from a group of more technologically advanced survivors.
Mitchell built his novel with a telescoping structure, the stories moving chronologically from past to future before moving backward again in reverse order to resolve each story individually. But the Wachowskis and Tykwer opt instead to intercut the six stories throughout Cloud Atlas’ running time, and it’s not a happy result. Each story brings a distinct tone—broad, almost slapstick comedy for the present-day London segment; science-fiction adventure for the 2144 portion; old-school procedural mystery for the 1973 story—that repeatedly bumps up against the others. The title refers (in part) to a sextet written by Whishaw’s Frobisher character, and it’s clear that the intended effect here is something visually symphonic. Instead, the sextet of these six stories proves dissonant in their juxtaposition—goofy woodwinds colliding with tribal drums bouncing off electric guitar.
Those editing choices also seem designed to help underline the thematic connections between the stories, beyond the mysterious comet birthmark borne by all the main characters. There can be few things more tedious than multinarrative stories that make the profoundly obvious observation that “we’re all connected,” and to Cloud Atlas’ credit, it doesn’t rest on that simplistic New Age-y hooey. Each story—some more obviously than others—addresses the powerful trying to exert their will on those beneath them, while one of the bisexual Frobisher’s letters to his friend/erstwhile lover addresses the notion that “all boundaries are conventions” waiting for someone brave enough to challenge them.
Yet it’s hard for the ideas to resonate when the film is creating strange equivalencies between slavery and lack of sufficient respect for the elderly. It’s one thing for the filmmakers to find energy cross-cutting between the escape of Sonmi-351 and an escaped slave’s attempts to prove his worthiness as a sailor; it’s another for the crescendo of heroic rebellion to also include Hugo Weaving in drag getting a cask of wine smashed over his head.
It’s easy to recognize that individually, many of these stories would have made compelling 90-minute features (and a whole lot has been chopped from each). Mitchell’s book proved frustrating because, while he had crafted a solid collection of novellas, the attempt to force them into one epic statement on humanity felt forced and unnecessarily grandiose. The best individual moments in Cloud Atlas rarely get a chance to connect, because we’re forever being reminded what a transcendent experience we’re meant to be sharing about love and compassion and unity and so on. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer spend three hours reaching for the heavens, and wind up failing to lay a solid foundation beneath their feet.
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent