Boundary-pushing directors, the Wachowskis (Andy and Lana Wachowski), are not afraid of an ambitious project and with Cloud Atlas they went all out.
The creators of The Matrix trilogy took on David Mitchell’s best-selling and seemingly unadaptable novel – which spans multiple countries, characters, stories and ages of humanity – with the aim of bringing to the big screen an interlinking feature which is both visually stunning and thought-provoking, leaving a mark on viewers long after the credits.
The film hasn’t quite been the box-office smash they might have hoped, especially considering a sizable budget of around $100m, but it was not helped by the lack of attention during awards season, failing to notch up a single Academy nomination.
This disaffection from Bafta and Oscar (the Golden Globes at least gave the movie a nomination for Best Original Score) has hindered Cloud Atlas and the daunting three-hour duration and complex themes may have put off some cinemagoers, but any respectable film fan should see the film for its whimsical aspirations alone.
This extravaganza tackles six interconnecting tales that leap through past eras and tableaus, including a 19th Century nautical Pacific voyage and a 1930’s gay love affair in Europe, onto dystopian future visions such as 2144 utilitarian Korea “Neo Seoul” and far-distant post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
You can see how as a palatable film for the multiplexes it has polarised people, the critics maybe seeing it as over-ambitious, but the team behind Cloud Atlas deserve applause for their efforts, as they have delivered something special, even if it is a little scrambled and bloated.
The Wachowskis joined forces with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), who co-wrote and co-directed with the notorious siblings, whilst assuming musical composition duties, which help elevate as much as the enchanting visuals.
There has been no expense spared. We have Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, combining with charismatic thespian Jim Broadbent, and up-and-coming British talents Ben Whishaw and Jim Sturgess.
I would need the film’s running time to describe the premise of Cloud Atlas and would probably ruin the feature in the process, so suffice to say, we have a spectrum of snapshots from characters’ lives within a period of hundreds of years of humanity’s existence and all stories are connected in certain ways to propose that our actions and choices resonate and reverberate through the world’s past, present and future, not matter how minute the connection or event is.
This idea is a profound one and this is emphasised throughout, both visually and in the dialogue, and the directorial trio make some brave decisions in trying to portray these concepts.
The novel tells each of the tales separately, almost as stand-alone short stories, whereas, in the film, the directors have chopped them all together, in what is akin to a plate-spinning act in trying to keep the viewers’ attention on each story, whilst maintaining momentum.
Whilst you do lose some of the focus in each plotline, it does allow for the film to build to an enthralling crescendo and whether the adaption could have been successfully if it was structured true to Mitchell’s novel is debatable.
However, in order to hold it all together they have given the actors multiple roles to play across the six stories, which suggests they did not trust the audience to piece together the connections of the whole grand plan without the same faces popping up in each saga, instead affectively bashing the viewer over the head with the reiteration of the point that everything and everyone is connected.
This means we are encouraged to ask questions about karma, existence and even reincarnation, but it also means there becomes awkwardness in this grandiose movie. In spreading the cast across all storylines, there are some laughable transformations – in terms of costumes, prosthetics, accents and even gender – which bring to the film a theatrical element, reminding us we are watching a production, destroying some of the illusion that cinema can conjure.
It doesn’t feel quite right to have beautifully-created landscapes, convincing and evocative acting, juxtaposed with ridiculous make-up department constructions in order to transfer each actor into a new world.
In the book, only the “Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” [Jim Broadbent] acts a farce, injecting humour to the powerful novel, but at too many moments within the film you are left laughing at some the ludicrous guises the actors turn up in. It just slightly taints the tone of the film.
Some of the casting though is spot on. Ben Whishaw, particularly in his role as rogue-turned-musical genius Robert Frobisher, is fantastic evoking heartfelt empathy in his vulnerable display, while Jim Sturgess has a beautiful serenity as both voyager Adam Ewing and futuristic rebel Hae-Joo Chang.
Halle Berry is impressive throughout, but possibly the show-stealer is Doona Bae as future fast-food fabricant worker, the mythical Somni-451. Perversely there are times where Tom Hanks criminally overacts and Hugh Grant sticks out like a sore thumb. Hugo Weaving is Hugo Weaving; cartoonlike and terrifying as always.
You can see why the Wachowskis were interested in this project, as there are similar philosophical quandaries and characters in The Matrix, but where David Mitchell connects his truly epic novel with grace and subtlety, the film has little subtlety and slightly overdoes it all departments.
Regardless, it is a hell of a ride and the themes should get viewers thinking like one of Halle Berry’s characters, journalist Luisa Ray, when she ponders, “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes over and over.”
Cloud Atlas focuses on the apparent intrinsic presence in humanity’s DNA of a need for more and greed, in opposition with a need to search for truth and justice and perpetually our choices govern which path we take.
Cloud Atlas (15)
Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon.
Running time: 172 minutes
Cloud Atlas is showing at the Hackney Picturehouse until mid-March and London-wide until throughout March.
/ 7 March, 2013