Cloud Atlas (2012)

20 Feb



David Mitchell’s sprawling epic novel that intertwines a sextet of seemingly disparate narratives across the sands of time forms the basis for this hugely ambitious synonymous imagining from the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer.  Critically lauded upon its release for the effortless synergy of its unconnected strands, Mitchell’s novel was soon labelled unfilmable when the inevitable adaptation was mooted.  Studios tended to agree and shied away from financing the project, but the passion and determination of the Wachowski’s and lead Tom Hanks ensured that with a little help from the German government and multiple independent financiers the film got made.

Sadly, this unconventional approach is telling as the Wachowski’s evident reverence for their source material is telling in its wholly uncinematic construction.   Initially, those unfamiliar with Mitchell’s novel will be baffled by the directorial approach, as the Wachowski’s and Tykwer choose to interweave all six narratives for the duration, flitting between the South Pacific of the nineteenth century, 1930’s Britain, ‘70’s San Francisco, the present day, a dystopian near future and an apocalyptic nightmare.

With our leads embodying different characters in each era, aided by some at times dodgy prosthetics, there are teasing hints at the ties that bind these stories together although it’s never quite clear how.  This lends proceedings a degree of inaccessibility, but it’s certainly never dull and is an intriguing, if frustrating puzzle.

Whilst what actually transpires in each timeline is fairly inconsequential, the overarching didactic message is one of eternal reoccurrences and of the actions undertaken in one lifetime having profound and resounding consequences on the future.  And so for example a seemingly small story of a ’30’s love affair between Robert Frobisher (a stand out Ben Whishaw) and Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) is connected to the story of ‘70’s journalist Lisa Rey (Halle Berry), in which Sixsmith plays a fundamental role.


These ripples that transcend time and geography are sometimes more tenuous and as a consequence some of the more farcical elements sit uncomfortably with the often oppressive philosophical overtones.  Whilst the present day tale of publisher Timothy Cavendish (an excellent Jim Broadbent) is designed to provide some much needed comic relief (and is actually one of the more successful strands of the picture), its slender connection with the sci-fi extravagance of the story of fabricant prophet Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in futuristic Neo Seoul is somewhat grating.  Lurching between the Carry On-esque nursing home capers of Cavendish and the earnest rebellion of Sonmi-451 and her saviour Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess) is tonally awkward and despite the telling hints that are peppered throughout each tale, Cloud Atlas sometimes feels like a series of wholly unconnected vignettes.

It also suffers under its own weighty ambition and whilst its scale and scope are admirable, it falls short in driving home its moralising around the power of human connection and our ability to breach the limits of possibility.  That said, the inferences about our actions defining who we are and how our legacy outlasts the shackles of time are afforded varying degrees of importance from tale to tale.

There is also an evident gulf in quality between each facet of the story with Tykwer’s ‘30’s and present day and the Wachowski’s Neo Seoul segments the strongest. Tykwer brings some touching nuance to these slighter stories and infuses them with more heart and humanity than the Wachowski’s manage.  They have sci-fi form and their Neo Seoul segment is heavily indebted to genre giants of the likes of Blade Runner, Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, visually compelling and suffused with some of the picture’s most interesting ideas.

Of the fifty or so characters that populate the extensive Cloud Atlas universe, Broadbent’s Cavendish and Wishaw’s Frobisher are the most rounded and memorable.  Unfortunately, Hanks and Berry are less successful in each of their incarnations, their apocalyptic babbling amongst the weakest aspects of the story.  Meanwhile, Hugo Weaving’s nefarious assassin Bill Smoke and conniving devil Old Georgie are impressively realised villains of the piece, counterpart to Bae’s pitch perfect heroine Sonmi.

Cloud Atlas is a dichotomous realisation of Mitchell’s source material, at once a grandiose vision of the human condition and the ties that bind us all together and at the same time a muddled sextet that has very little to connect them .  Ultimately, in trying to say too much, it ends up not really saying anything at all.  For a tale with such lofty ambitions, that is a significant failing.

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