David Mitchell has said that he had the thought "It's a shame this is unfilmable" as he was writing Cloud Atlas. Less than a decade later, Lana and Andy Wachowski, with the help of Tom Tykwer, have taken up the challenge, although the question of whether or not the book really is unfilmable probably depends on what you think of their finished product. Mitchell's acclaimed novel tells six stories spanning centuries, beginning in the middle of the 19th century and building up to a passage set in a far-off future, before then working back and completing the tales in reverse chronological order. It would be an enormous undertaking to adapt this book into a single coherent film, and the filmmakers certainly deserve some credit for pulling it off to the extent that they have.
I wish I could give them more credit than that, but actually getting Cloud Atlas to the screen is as far as their achievement goes. In tackling Mitchell's complex narrative structure, in which the self-contained, tangentially linked stories are nested within one another, the Wachowskis and Tykwer have chosen to tell the tales in parallel and cut frequently between them. Each of these threads is connected in some way to the next, and the filmmakers attempt to further unify the whole piece by having the same core group of actors play the key roles in each segment, with their performances transcending age, race, nationality and gender. All of which means that Cloud Atlas is a film unlike any other, but not necessarily in a good way.
Chronologically speaking, Cloud Atlas begins on a ship heading for the Pacific Islands in 1849, where American notary Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is being poisoned by a nefarious doctor (Tom Hanks). Over 80 years later, we find young gay musician Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) leaving his lover (James D'Arcy) to travel to Edinburgh, where he acts as an amanuensis to veteran composer (Jim Broadbent) and works on his Cloud Atlas symphony. In the 1970s, Halle Berry is an investigative journalist who unearths corruption at a nuclear power plant and finds her life in danger as a result. In modern-day London, Broadbent again appears as a publisher landed in water when a gangster-turned-author (Hanks again) demands payment for his unexpected bestseller. We're in the future now (keep up!), 2144 to be precise, and Neo Seoul is a dystopian society where a female "Fabricant" played by Doona Bae may be the chosen one to lead an uprising against an oppressive regime. Finally, in a post-apocalyptic time described only as "106 Winters after The Fall," Hanks and Berry reunite as two tribe members trying to unlock the secret that lies at the top of a mountain, and spouting a lot of incomprehensible gobbledegook as they do so.
Phew! The first thing to say about this collection of narratives is that it's too much for a single film to contain. There are too many competing storylines, too many clashing styles and tones. The best part of the film is the 1930s segment, in which Whishaw and D'Arcy manage to find moments of wistful tenderness, and it might have made a decent standalone film in its own right, but chopping this story up and throwing it into the blender with five other films of varying quality only diminishes them all. The romantic yearning of Frobisher's tale rubs uncomfortably against the Matrix-style trappings of the Neo Seoul sequences, the visually dull and dramatically inert '70s business, or the excruciating broad comedy of the 2012 sequence. The manner in which the film hops between these underdeveloped storylines is erratic and the editing fails to illuminate the parallels between the film's disparate strands in any kind of interesting way, only causing a long film to feel baggy and bloated. I've watched four-hour movies that feel shorter than Cloud Atlas because the film is never allowed to build a natural flow or momentum. Every time I started to get drawn into one of the narratives the film would suddenly cut away to another storyline, and this sense of stunted rhythm, of consistently having to readjust, made it impossible for me to connect with the drama.
The other distracting element of Cloud Atlas is the cast. The actors all seem to be having the time of their lives, and why wouldn't they be? It's not every day you get asked to play characters young and old, male and female, and of varying races, all within the same movie. Tom Hanks throws himself into every part with admirable gusto (his Irish gangster has to be seen to be believed), but we never forget that we're looking at Tom Hanks behind that ridiculous prosthetic nose or set of false teeth. When we're required to be scared of a marauding cannibal, the effect is neutered by the fact that said marauding cannibal is played by Hugh Grant, and asking Jim Sturgess to don Asian eye makeup in order to play a heroic Korean freedom fighter is simply asking for trouble. I understand what the filmmakers are trying to do here; the multiple performances speak to the film's idea of connectivity, of souls or a consciousness existing across time, but by the time we see Whishaw disguised as a woman for a single shot, or Broadbent as a Korean beggar barely noticeable in the background, it starts to look like nothing more than a flashy gimmick.
It gives me no pleasure to criticise Cloud Atlas. Independent films this ambitious, sincere and inclusive will have viewers in their corner by default, all willing it to succeed so we can applaud the audacious gamble. There is disappointingly little to applaud in this film, though. It seems as if all of the filmmakers' imagination was expended on the conception of their adaptation, and nothing was left for the execution of it. For all of its spectacle, Cloud Atlas has very few memorable shots, and few moments when the filmmakers express something visually rather than hammering their themes home through the incessant narration and trite homiletic dialogue ("My life exists far beyond the limitations of me." "What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?"). The Wachowskis and Tykwer set out to make the modern Intolerance – a grand statement on love, freedom and the human condition – but the only truth we are left to ponder at the end of it all is an uncomfortable one for the filmmakers to face. It looks like Cloud Atlas really was unfilmable after all.