Based purely on scope and ambition, Cloud Atlas is a remarkable cinematic creation. Unfortunately movies need to succeed on more levels than that just the hypothetical, and more importantly this film’s three-headed directing combo of Tom Tykwer, Andy, and Lana Wachowski were all striving for far more than scale and technical expertise. The trio spent six years nursing along this adaptation of David Mitchell’s acclaimed novel, hoping to create a grand blockbuster epic with philosophical and humanistic undertones along the lines of say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that they were even able to get the thing made sadly remains their greatest achievement with the project. The film’s undeniably remarkable to behold and fascinating to attempt to piece together, but some books are labelled unfilmable for a reason. Despite all of the talent involved, there was simply no way to cram all of the ideas and dreams for the project into even a three-hour running time. It’s still worth experiencing for the moments that go oh-so right and will inevitably inspire a cult of devoted supporters, but there’s simply no denying the failures and ultimately underwhelming aspects of the film, regardless of the strengths.
Mitchell’s book weaves together six separate storylines stretching from deep in the past to far into the future and while the Wachowskis/Tykwer ditch the author’s chronological games, they do retain every single narrative thread. So the film simultaneously weaves between a story in 1850 where an ailing American (Jim Sturgess) is slowly poisoned by a ship’s doctor (Tom Hanks), a tale set in the 30s in which an aging composer (Jim Broadbent) battles with a young assistant (Ben Whishaw) over the authorship of a symphony, a 1970s thriller with a reporter (Halle Berry) who is threatened for uncovering dirty corporate secrets, the lighter modern day story of an elderly book publisher (Broadbent) imprisoned in a retirement home, a 2144 sci-fi yarn about a cyborg (Doona Bae) attempting to become human, and a post apocalyptic story set hundreds of years in the future about a tribesman (Hanks) struggling to help a survivor (Berry) from a more advanced and long destroyed civilization (which unfortunately uses the imagined future dialect from the book that worked on the page, but is fairly laughable when spoken).
That’s a great deal of material to cover in a single film, and that’s both Cloud Atlas’ major strength and weakness. There are moments when the filmmakers cross-cut between the six stories undergoing simultaneous climaxes that are undeniably remarkable and other times when it’s hard to care enough to juggle all the competing narratives in your head. Part of the problem is that by condensing the stories as much as they have, the Wachowskis and Tykwer have reduced them to Coles Notes summaries of events that don’t get the proper screen time to breathe or develop. That’s fairly devastating simply because it robs the stories of much of their humanity and characterization. Since the ultimate message of the film is about repetition in the history of humanity and the unified nature of human spirit, you kind of have to care about the characters to appreciate that. Enough comes across for that message to read loud and clear, but not enough for it to resonate as deeply as intended.
You also may have noticed all of the repeated names in the cast, because in another one of the filmmaker’s wild gambles they chose to cast a handful of actors in every single role, no matter how big or small. It’s a risky decision, but a clever one that underlines the similarities between all of the joys and plights of human existence across countries, cultures, and time. The trouble is that for the most part the actors all tend to nail one or two of their roles quite well and struggle elsewhere. So the stunt casting proves to be more of a distraction than anything else. While say, Hugo Weaving does fine playing all of the villains (ranging from a bizarre future goblin/leprechaun to donning a dress for the Nurse Ratched of retirement homes) because that’s within his range, Hanks, Berry, and pretty well everyone else are asked to play characters they simply can’t handle and quickly become a major distractions (and the less said about the egalitarian, but disastrously awkward decision to use prosthetic make-up for cross-racial casting, the better). Is this form of stunt casting a clever idea that suits the source material? Sure, but it just doesn’t quite work with these particular actors.
Unfortunately that’s true of so many of the decisions the Wachowskis and Tykwer made on the film. It’s clear that this was a movie made by artists wearing their hearts on their sleeves and taking massive risks. That makes it the type of project that Hollywood should encourage major directors to attempt, the only trouble is that when you take big risks, no one bats 1.000. Cloud Atlas has grand themes and ambitions that thrillingly come to life in fits and starts, proving that the filmmakers weren’t crazy for attempting the adaptation. It just never gels together well, in part because the material is better suited to stage than screen and in part because of the risky choices the filmmakers made that had to be attempted to even know if they would work. There’s enough effective material littered throughout the movie to make it a worth seeing and it certainly can’t be faulted for lacking substance. Sadly, Cloud Atlas just can’t be labeled a success with major the gaffs and stumbles that are impossible to ignore. Everyone involved certainly gets an “A” for effort. Too bad that general audiences don’t tend to be particularly forgiving when they sit down to watch a $100 million blockbuster.