Written by Matt Bowes
I spoke a little bit about filming “unfilmable novels” when I talked about Watchmen, but even by the standards of author David Mitchell’s work, Cloud Atlas probably shouldn’t have been the first to become a movie. There’s a perfect coming-of-age in the Eighties story sitting right there in Black Swan Green, which would have easily fit in among recent films like Adventureland, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The To-Do List. It’s great, and could possibly have served the public as a taste of Mitchell’s work, perhaps leading in to some of his more challenging books, like the Japanese period piece The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, or his most recent novel, the Highlander-esque ur-text The Bone Clocks. But, no—for the first Mitchell adaptation, we got his most world-spanning, genre-straddling work, a book that encompasses at least three hundred years of history, features hundreds of characters, an invented future language and multiple literary styles. We should just be astounded that a movie like Cloud Atlas even happened, much less at how good it turned out!
Rather than adapting the interesting story structure of the book, which tells you half of five of the chronological narratives, then tells the entirety of the farthest-future story, then finishes each of the stories in turn, the Siblings and Tykwer chose to interweave all six narratives simultaneously, using cunning edits and musical cues.
The Wachowski siblings were the directors behind another Reconsidered movie, Speed Racer (2008), and their acumen for visual storytelling continued on in their follow-up, Cloud Atlas. (Speaking of which, their new film, Jupiter Ascending, is also super, silly fun, so don’t miss out on it!) Cloud Atlas also called upon the talents of co-director Tom Tykwer, best known for cult classic and hair colour inspiration Run Lola Run, but also for the similarly “unfilmable” Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Rather than adapting the interesting story structure of the book, which tells you half of five of the chronological narratives, then tells the entirety of the farthest-future story, then finishes each of the stories in turn, the Siblings and Tykwer chose to interweave all six narratives simultaneously, using cunning edits and musical cues. The short video in the Blu-ray’s special features shows Tykwer and the Wachowskis plotting all six narratives out on parallel lines of note cards, which allowed them to find points of narrative similarity that could be turned into evocative film sequences. The effect is that of an orchestral performance: motifs and shot structures play off one another across the ages, in a way that the plot doesn’t really have enough time to spell out for you. There’s even a kind of overture right at the beginning of the film, which introduces each narrative in thirty-second bursts.
Here’s about as simply as I can describe the film’s story: Cloud Atlas follows a group of quasi-reincarnated people over the aforementioned three hundred years. In 1849, a young lawyer named Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is essentially held captive on a sea voyage by Doctor Goose (Tom Hanks) who poisons him, while in 1936 a brilliant young composer named Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) takes refuge from the law with a brilliant old composer named Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Moving forward in time, by 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is investigating a potentially dangerous nuclear reactor owned by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent again) finds himself double-crossed by his brother (Hugh Grant again) and stashed away in a nursing home run by the sadistic Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving). In 2144, a fabricant restaurant employee named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) finds out the horrible secret that awaits her after a life of servitude, and hooks up with Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess again), a freedom fighter who believes clones like her are the future of humanity. In the final storyline, Zachry (Tom Hanks again), lives a relatively simple existence as a sheepherder on Hawaii’s Big Island, until a technologically advanced woman named Meronym (Halle Berry again) asks him for help on a dangerous mission. Also, Hugh Grant plays the leader of a cannibal gang who preys on Zachry’s tribe. (Admit it, you’ve always wanted to see that.)
Somehow this is less confusing than it sounds. If you’re able to keep up with which oddly specific human quality-turned societal caste hates the others in Divergent, or if you can follow the way space and time interact and change each other in Interstellar, I don’t think that this story should befuddle you. In fact, the multiple styles and moods found in Cloud Atlas should have been used as a selling point, rather than to the film’s detriment: you get what is essentially a Melville-esque sea tale, a touching Christopher Isherwood-style doomed romance, a paranoid Seventies airport novel, an amusing modern-day British comedy in the vein of The Full Monty, a near-future cyberpunk film and a post apocalypse narrative. Six movies for the price of one!
As I noted before, the visual language of this film does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to carrying each of these stories along, as certain images, mise en scene and blocking are used over and over again to establish character interactions and plot demands. The film’s score is also stellar, incorporating Robert Frobisher’s eventual masterwork, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” as alternatively an orchestral piece, retirement home Muzak and choral suicide chant. The visual effects in the film are top-notch, especially in the Neo-Seoul 2144 segments, which feature hover motorcycles, drone dropships, laser pistols and all kinds of other cool stuff fans of The Matrix films will appreciate. There are also subtle touches, like how a simple trick of focus in the Zachry segments finds Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving again), Zachry’s imagined evil incarnate dressed in a sort of Slash from Guns n’ Roses cosplay, forever out of reach, tormenting our hero. Combined with the sound design for his voice, this effect is very unnerving.
Before the film’s release, word came out that actors were playing different sexes and in many cases different races throughout the story. The anger this caused is understandable, as Hollywood has an extensive history of having white actors play other races, often to denigrate them. This practice has happily slowed since the days of Charlie Chan and Dr. Fu Manchu, although it still does rear its ugly head in recent films like Dragonball Evolution and Avatar: The Last Airbender. To my mind, which in the interest of full disclosure would include a lifetime of white male privilege, Cloud Atlas does things a little differently than these other films. Rather than having white actors play other races out of some sort of misguided sense of what Hollywood audiences want, or as some sort of racist slight, I think that the Wachowskis and Tykwer are making a point with the “reincarnated” characters in the story, most of whom change sex and race at least once. As a trans woman, Lana Wachowski would naturally be interested in narratives that involve human souls moving through different forms.
The film might come off as a little naive at times to think that thousands of years’ worth of racism and privilege can be transcended, but it’s an idea that is very appealing.
And, not only that, I think the narrative of the film, which is forever darting about through time and space, aims to show how things are getting better in certain respects for people with less social power. While in Ewing’s time, the young lawyer cannot possibly understand how he and a black slave stowaway could possibly be seen as friends, a realization that eventually leads him to become an abolitionist, by the 1970s, Luisa Rey and the Shaft-esque and awesome Joe Napier (played by Keith David, a.k.a. the Vice President in Saints Row IV, a.k.a. the coolest man alive) face political peril and Seventies-style paranoia rather than anything having to do with their heritage. By 2144, Sonmi-453 is astounded that the amount of melanin one has in their skin had any bearing on their social state whatsoever. The film might come off as a little naive at times to think that thousands of years’ worth of racism and privilege can be transcended, but it’s an idea that is very appealing.
Cloud Atlas is many things: a visual masterwork, a cunning puzzlebox of stories, an intriguing blend of narrative tropes and genre trappings and a film that attempts to interrogate giant human questions of love, art and friendship in a serious but fun manner. In a time where big-budget sci-fi epics must seemingly be either cold and clinical, or wildly irreverent and ephemeral if they hope to succeed, the fact that this movie even happened is a goddamn miracle. The fact that it’s based on the work of one of our best living novelists and not some huge transmedia license like a YA or comic series that everyone kind of knows about already is just the icing on the cake.