Director Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving
David Mitchell’s 500-plus-page bestseller is much beloved and comes bestowed with multiple literary prizes, but has always been deemed unfilmable, writes Matt Mueller.
So the fact that writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have managed to forge a genre-switching, century-jumping epic that somehow adds up to more than the sum of its sprawling, absorbing, disparate parts is unlikely, a bit shocking and ultimately quite poignant. That they’ve achieve it using a starry cast who each slot into multiple roles, mostly disguised under layers of prosthetics, tattoos and all manner of theatrical costuming, makes it even more of a fascinating marvel.
Cloud Atlas is already dividing opinion between lovers and haters, but it’s definitely got my vote, outstripping anything the Wachowskis have done before for lofty ambition – and yes, that includes Speed Racer. The opening stretch is a monumental deluge, with even devotees of the book likely to struggle keeping up as storylines from past, present and far-off future, peopled by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and more, rush by in a dizzying onslaught.
At times exhilarating, at others bland, Cloud Atlas swells and subsides with its myriad plot strands, which hang together with mostly impressive coherence thanks to sharp, smart editing and the underpinnings of a sweeping, Oscar-worthy score by Tykwer and his collaborators Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.
Among the strongest stories are a futuristic thriller in which the indentured “fabricant” Sonmi-451 (Korean actress Doona Bae) morphs from literal wage slave for a rampant consumerist culture in 2144 Neo Seoul to spiritually awakened freedom fighter, bearing no small resemblance to Keanu Reeves’s The One along the way; a Cambridge-set chapter in which Broadbent’s grumpy, esteemed composer takes Ben Whishaw’s ambitious young disciple under his wing; and Berry’s efforts as a 1970s investigative reporter to expose a nefarious corporate conspiracy.
The worst is a saggy ship-set episode in which Hanks’ buck-toothed doctor slowly poisons a novice sailor (Sturgess) for ill-gotten gains during an 1849 voyage across the South Seas. The film reveals each story to be a tale conveyed by the next (a notion taken from the book), with a thematic overview of masters and slaves, the never-ending fight for freedom and a human’s choice to act with kindness or violence rippling across the epochs. The film offers huge pleasures in its actors’ multiple roles, not least Grant playing a tattooed cannibal and Weaving popping up as both a fearsome battleaxe retirement home nurse and a hissing goblin-man who haunts one of Hanks’s characters and resembles something out of the League of Gentlemen (a show that may cross British minds more than once in Cloud Atlas’s sillier moments).
But while the prosthetics are almost deliberately distracting, Hanks’s bizarre patois as a tattooed future tribesman is virtually unintelligible and the various strands deliberately riff on predictable genre mechanics (as in Mitchell’s book), the sheer, crazy ambition of the whole enterprise and the crescendo-building montages that end up shaking and stirring the emotions are to be admired.
Odd, bizarre, sumptuously mounted – this is the kind of glorious, reach-for-the-sky storytelling that Hollywood is in serious danger of losing, but would be well served to rekindle. Maybe Cloud Atlas can lead a revolution.