In the late 90s, the Wachowski siblings threw seemingly every idea they were interested in into one film and managed to produce an incredible work from it. That film was ‘The Matrix’. Author David Mitchell appears to have taken a similar approach when writing his prize-winning 2004 novel ‘Cloud Atlas’. It’s another one of those books people like to call ‘unfilmable’, likely due to its multi-part, multi-genre structure. Now the Wachowskis have teamed up with German director Tom Tykwer (who has experience in filming ‘unfilmable’ books with ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’) to adapt the challenging work.
The film tells six different stories, all taking place at different times starting from the 19th century and ending in a post-apocalyptic future. All are linked with the previous story being passed on to the next in different manners, and while they are all quite different, they share many themes and ideas flowing through all.
The directors have divided into two units, and, as the credits call them, Team Wachowski filmed the earliest and the two futuristic stories, while Team Tykwer took on the three in between.
While the book broke the sections up and told them separately, the film has decided to go with a radically different approach. After establishing each strand sufficiently, it then jumps from one to another for its duration. It’s a gamble that pays off handsomely. The stories never feel disjointed and are edited expertly, preventing any one section’s style overshadowing others, and they are all designed and filmed tremendously well. Moreover, it means ‘Cloud Atlas’ always feels like a complete work in itself, and not an anthology film. Had they told each story separately, it would have suffered, and most discussions on the film would doubtless centre on which sections were better or worse. Most importantly of all though, it actually proves to be a better way of conveying the themes and messages of the overall story, allowing the stories to develop and build towards their climaxes together. It even adds a wonderful bookending prologue/epilogue for good measure.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any stand-out moments, the Neo-Seoul section offers some mind-blowing visuals, while the 1936 section is truly heart-breaking. It’s all accompanied by a magnificent score courtesy of director Tykwer himself and his usual two collaborators. The only weaker moments occur during the latter half of the 2012 story.
The other unusual and risky choice made with the adaptation of ‘Cloud Atlas’, is to use the same group of actors for all the different sections, regardless of age, race, or sex. This is all in keeping with one of the central ideas; that these characters are, as author David Mitchell puts it, ‘reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies’, and showing that while lives can go in different directions, the nature of humanity is essentially the same.
They’ve assembled quite a cast for this tricky task. The use of actors in this manner also assists in not overcomplicating the film, and gives them a chance to show a wide range within a short period. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a great Tom Hanks performance, but we’re treated to several here, and come to think of it, how long has it been since Halle Berry’s been in a good film? The two stand-out performances though, come from Ben Whishaw (‘Perfume’, ‘Skyfall’) as a troubled young composer, and Korean star Bae Doona (‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’, ‘The Host’) as a waitress clone come revolutionary.
Plenty of the make-up work used is impressive and renders some stars unrecognizable (Hugh Grant as a cannibal tribe chief (?)), and one might not realise all the roles one actor played until they’re shown in the end credits. Some other make-up, unfortunately, is not so good. The film has come under fire for it use of ‘yellowface’ in the Neo-Seoul section and frankly, it’s one area where they could, and should, have done a much better job with the make-up. It’s been suggested that a real Korean actor should have been used for the Jim Sturgess role, but had they done that it would have required making him up as white for his other roles. Would that really have been better? Maybe. Anyway, at least the best and most important role in that section, Sonmi-451 was played by a real Korean.
‘Cloud Atlas’ proves to be a unique, complex, astonishingly ambitious, thought-provoking and ultimately, highly rewarding film, that covers a huge scope while remaining emotionally engaging throughout its epic running time, and will probably continue to cause discussion for years to come.