My David Mitchell experience is limited at best. I made it about a third of the way through number9dream before giving up – something I don’t easily do with novels out of abject stubbornness. Whilst I appreciated it’s cocksure narrative booby traps, I also found them somewhat tiresome. Cloud Atlas I haven’t attempted. And now here’s this movie, arriving on UK shores following a lukewarm stateside reception and boasting an intimidating run-time and enough casting tics to pique curiosity and worry in equal measure. Honestly, what to make of it all?
“A half-finished book is a half-finished love affair” apparently. So says one of the many, many characters in this sprawling three-hour journey into the connective tissue of storytelling. My guilty secret about number9dream was exposed. Just as well that the rest of the cinema audience couldn’t possibly have known or cared; they were as busy as I was trying to riddle Cloud Atlas‘ deceptively simple grand plan.
So here, against all probability we have six stories set in six different time periods, two of them in the future. Adapted for the screen and directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Cloud Atlas sees a collective of oddly matched actors chop-and-change roles throughout, seeding the story’s suggestions of reincarnation and repeating history. Each key player gets to take the lead for one of the stories.
We have, in chronological order: Jim Sturgess in the mid 19th century playing a slavery prospector unwittingly being poisoned at sea, Ben Wishaw as an opportunistic gay composer propping up his mentor in the 1930’s, Halle Berry as a journalist circa 1973 sniffing out a conspiracy to let a nuclear reactor fail, Jim Broadbent as a publisher accidentally exiled to a bizarre retirement home in 2012, Doona Bae as a cloned ‘fabricant’ becoming self-aware in Neo Seoul circa 2144, and Tom Hanks talking gobbledygook in post-apocalyptic 2321 as he fends off tribal warfare and technologically advanced visitors from the skies.
But they’re all connected, you see?
All six key players recur in other roles throughout under varying levels of distracting latex with different degrees of success. Hanks suffers the most in this – his character in the 19th century tale resembles a rejected League Of Gentlemen grotesque. Something left out of their Christmas Special for being too odd. Also frequently recurring with equal incredulity are Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving, ostensibly turning up as all-purpose bad guys. Yes, that’s Grant you’ve seen in the promotional photos dressed up like a failed Last Of The Mohicans cosplay disaster.
This kind of kooky casting draws attention to itself, so whilst it does add a dimension to the overall ‘message’ of Cloud Atlas, it’s a pretty heavy-handed and questionable motif. The other problem here is a sort of tonal seasickness. The stories are all interwoven – we jump from one to another. No doubt the Wachowskis/Tykwer are hoping to achieve something as smartly layered as Inception. However, whilst Cloud Atlas‘ tales share recurring elements, they spring from differing genres. Jumping from British farce to conspiracy thriller to cyberpunk action spectacular is a lurching experience, like someone incessantly flipping channels. The film flounders at maintaining a steady flow.
It doesn’t help that the quality of the six stories varies wildly too. Berry’s 70’s thriller and Bae’s futuristic awakening are the strongest here – both excelling thanks to well-defined arcs and led by heroes you want to cheer for. The same can’t be said across the board. Jim Broadbent’s contemporary tale in particular is jaw-drop terrible, as ridiculous plot turns and borderline offensive caricatures pile-up in equal measure. It’s hard to believe they’re all part of the same fascinating muddle. The acting is just as inconsistent. Those playing it straight – again, Berry and Bae – come out of things more or less in tact. Hanks and Broadbent meanwhile appear to be playing to a different directorial note entirely, opting for pantomime performances.
Whilst the audience does it’s best to juggle multiple flights of fancy and Hugo Weaving’s woefully misjudged appearances (he appears dragged-up for a Nurse Ratched parody and as, presumably, The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh) Cloud Atlas piles on significant clues to how these characters are all related through time. Not to mention nods to famous fictional milestones (both Moby Dick and Soylent Green are referenced pointedly, then later on directly parodied).
It’s a dizzying experience, and if I’ve been less than praising so far, it’s worth adding that as scatter shot as all of this is, it’s also oddly compulsive. Sure, it’s a good hour or so before all six stories are established and any sense of gravity has been laid into any one of them, but once they’re set in motion, Cloud Atlas‘ hefty run time starts to tick by happily, despite those tonal twists.
And then there’s the sheer audacity of the project. Unquestionably Cloud Atlas is an indulgance, but it’s infectiously potty. The idea of this much money being poured into a movie so obviously batty, pompous and doomed to critical and commercial failure is as charming as it is lamentable. I’m kind of glad this movie exists. I like the idea of a world where something this oddball is allowed to get bankrolled. It might be slapdash and lacking in subtlety, but it’s also brimming with ideas. More ideas than it can realistically handle. Characters exchange dialogue as loopy as “You have to do whatever you can’t not do”. Whilst (unsurprisingly given the people at the helm) some of the production design here is staggering, most notable when we travel to Neo Seoul.
Crazily, given that it’s three hours long, Cloud Atlas ends almost abruptly. All six stories suffer slightly from a sense that their third acts have been condensed. And as previously suggested the film’s final thoughts offer little more than you will have already guessed half way through. Nevertheless, for all it’s doolally ambition and wonky components, there’s something weirdly enjoyable about Cloud Atlas. It is not an overarching success, but it is likely to join the ranks of Waterworld, Dune and Southland Tales as a particularly fascinating sci-fi failure. The mark below might be a little soft, but there’s an inexplicable charm to folly like this.
I won’t be going back to number9dream, but I might pick up a copy of Cloud Atlas.