Cloud Atlas is a rarity. How can we begin to describe what an accomplishment it is that this film even exists?
Its source material, a novel of the same name by Englishman David Mitchell, was said to be unfilmable: six stories, all distinctly plotted, representing several centuries from the 1800s to the post-apocalyptic future. Mitchell pieced them together in a narrative structure that won him critical praise and landed him on the Man Booker shortlist. But using the same concept for a film? Impossible.
Yet here we are with just that: the film.
The Matrix-famed Wachowski siblings and their good friend Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), a German director, pulled it off by weaving the stories together instead of presenting them at length one at a time. It was the right decision for the nuts-and-bolts reason that it’s easier to remember characters this way (the film is hefty, clocking in at two hours and 43 minutes). It was also the right decision for pacing, to keep things interesting.
Funny, then, that Cloud Atlas starts off ploddingly, making you wonder for the first 45-or-so minutes if the rest of the film will continue floating around lost in space. Perhaps the filmmakers can be forgiven for this, since they had to present a new exposition six times. We should be less forgiving, though, for the unclear distinction between stories, which hampers our ability to connect different events and characters to each plot.
But the film learns to walk. It finds its stride. And finally, it blossoms beautifully. The six stories, deadweight at first, suddenly become intriguing, progressing alongside one another in freewheeling glory. The film’s structure becomes a strength, keeping proceedings tense and gripping with mini-cliffhangers abound. No matter that the film’s grand theme, that everything and everyone is connected somehow, is a bit of an afterthought. Cloud Atlas’ storytelling is thrilling and carries the day.
Tom Hanks is reliably compelling, most notably as an eccentric doctor tending to an ailing lawyer (a convincing Jim Sturgess) aboard a Pacific ship. Halle Berry is resilient as a deep-digging journalist wading into a mess of corruption. Jim Broadbent (of Harry Potter fame) shines as a harried and wide-eyed publisher, tricked into imprisonment in a nursing home and determined, huffing and puffing, to escape. Ben Whishaw (cast in the upcoming Bond film Skyfall) is irresistibly suave as a young playboy musician working for a master composer. And South Korean actress Bae Doo Na is entrancing as a clone in 22nd-century Neo Seoul, a futuristic city stylized as wonderfully as you might expect from the Wachowskis. Make sure you stay for the credits to see which actors played various characters throughout the film.
Most importantly, Cloud Atlas is an experience. It was filmed gorgeously, and its soundtrack is veritably haunting. It takes you on an exhilarating ride and, in breathtaking fashion, ends on as close to a perfect note as you could imagine.
That’s a relief, because, to be sure, Cloud Atlas was far more than a mere gamble. Most filmmakers don’t get $100 million to take a chance on a radically different film, so when they do, we want them to succeed. Their success blazes the path for filmmakers who dare to try something new.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer stumbled a bit, but they got it mostly right. Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most extraordinary feat of imagination we’ll see on the screen in a long time. That, no doubt, is a rarity.
JOEY CHEN can be reached at email@example.com.