Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant
You may like this if you liked: The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011)
Everything we do, good or bad, has actions and consequences that effect future actions and situations. Everything is basically connected, even if we die, our life carries on through other connected souls. No this is not EE’s latest ad campaign involving Kevin Bacon; this is the premise of Cloud Atlas. Based on the novel by David Mitchell, we are basically told six separate stories set in very different periods of time, the earliest being the Pacific Ocean in 1849 and the latest a post-apocalyptic 24th century Hawaii. These are stories of love, hatred, greed, betrayal, compassion, loyalty and all the basic human emotions. While the landscape of the planet may change, these basic human emotions are still what dominate the reasons for our actions. Just for good measure, it seems we also have six different genres of film all put together too! The six stories involve a period piece telling of a diary from a voyage across the pacific, an intimate tale of a talented composer with a forbidden love, a present day thriller about corruption and murder at a nuclear power plant, a farcical comedy about an elderly man wrongly placed in a retirement home, a Sci-Fi action film telling of a rebellious clone in futurist Korea and a tribe living in post apocalyptic Hawaii. To demonstrate the connections and karma, the same actors predominantly play one character in each of the stories. Trust me, that is the tip of the iceberg, but at least there is no Kevin Bacon in sight!
Cloud Atlas is a film that has so far been loved and loathed, with the term ‘admirable failure’ banded about frequently. I personally loved the visual style of Tom Tykwer’s film version of Perfume, another supposedly unfilmable novel, so that was certainly a good start. Due to style and structure of the novel, and the fact Cloud Atlas was not funded by any large studio, there is no denying this is an ambitious film which does indeed have to be admired. There are quite possibly an equal number of quite reasonable reasons why people seem to love or hate Cloud Atlas. For me these are both very strong words and I would personally apply neither to Cloud Atlas, I found it very enjoyable and thought it works. Just.
Firstly I must implore people not to be put off by the running time. Yes it is a long time and you may have a saw bum if watching this at the cinema. However, for me at no point does Cloud Atlas drag, there is always something happening in the multiple stories and in fact this film actually for me mentally felt shorter than Django Unchained.
For the narrative structure of Cloud Atlas to work all six individual stories need to be able to stand on their own and I felt they all did. They contain plenty of twists and turns, likeable protagonists with their own character arcs and satisfying conclusions that not only fit with the other stories, but the individual conclusions are perfectly satisfying. Some stories are of course better than others, the 1936 tale of Ben Whishaw’s composer being the stand out story in my view compared to the generic and forgettable modern day thriller involving Halle Berry’s investigative journalist. Some are a little contrived in places, but all fit together very nicely at the end. As they all simultaneously reach their conclusions the whole experience is extremely involving. Admittedly as the film reaches its simultaneous conclusions this feels a little too cheesy and over sentimental. This does perhaps feel a little contrived, patronising and annoying as it may detract a little from the engagement of what has happened previously, but Cloud Atlas just about gets away with it as I felt I truly cared about some of the characters.
As never having read the novel, I would be interested to know how the fact these characters are linked is actually described. To cast the same actors in each story, sometimes major or minor roles, is both an inspired and frustrating decision. Narratively speaking, it is economical and adds visual explanations that would otherwise require words and a longer running time. However, it can sometimes be off putting, the more minor roles in the stories sometimes feel unnecessary and for the sake of it and often detract from the engagement of the films core narrative theme as they truly add nothing to it. Tom Hanks turning up as an angry Irishman for a couple of minutes or Hugo Weaving in drag as a Nurse Ratched type character add nothing to the actual individual stories and prove to be unwanted and unnecessary distractions, often inducing unintentional humour. I understand that it may be important to get every actor in each story, proving the whole theme of connection, but when their actual character adds nothing to that story it may well have cut the off putting running time.
Despite everything I have said so far, Cloud Atlas is not a complex film and very straight forward to understand. The overall narrative themes presented are quite straight forward to understand straight away and never rammed down anyone’s throat. The six individual stories themselves are very easy and not especially complex either. This for me was what made Cloud Atlas such an enjoyable and watchable experience. With all these themes I was personally worried that there might be a serious overstuffing of philosophical nonsense like in the Wachowski’s Matrix sequels, this could have lead to the film becoming a combination of patronising and alienating. Thankfully this is kept to a minimum, treating the audience as intelligent individuals who ‘get it’ and letting the different stories develop in their own right.
Credit and admiration does indeed have to go to Tykwer and the Wachowski’s due to their audacity and sheer bloody single mindedness to make Cloud Atlas their way. This was not funded by any big studios and it definitely shows as how it is presented would never have been allowed by any big studio. There would have been some serious dumbing down, constant patronising unnecessary reminders of what is going on and a much shorter running time. Another thing unique about the respective director’s approach was to have Tykwer direct three of the stories, and the Wachowski’s the other three. This was also done with directors using completely different production crews. All six films are very well made and directed with some beautiful shots, but using this production method could have easily left the film feeling disjointed and inconsistent. However, despite the glitches I have already mentioned Cloud Atlas does flow extremely well, this is partly due to the excellent editing, but also the director’s obvious passions for this project which is very much theirs. I seriously hope that Tykwer and the Wachowski’s make their money back on Cloud Atlas, they deserve it.
Cloud Atlas is many things: Ambitious, audacious, over stuffed, bonkers and a little too contrived and cheesy. However, most importantly Cloud Atlas is a surprisingly simple but engaging and enjoyable experience, despite the running time. In my view, no masterpiece and it won’t change your life, but definitely worth a watch.