Review: Cloud Atlas could do with a map
The Wachowski siblings present this latest addition to their world-renowned collection of mind-bending creations (The Matrix trilogy, V for Vendetta) – an adaptation of the hugely successful book by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. Known as the ‘unfilmable novel’, this genre-breaking and unconventional story attempts to transport you back and forth between the ages, telling of interlinked lives and how the effects of certain actions ripple through time...
Thinking back to my policy of avoiding book-based films until having read the literature, I find myself now in the exact same position as I was when I first stated that: agreeing.
I think the much-talked-about, star-studded Cloud Atlas will be an audience-splitter: you’ll either love it or hate it. I predict that if you haven’t read the book, you won’t really understand it; if you have read the book, you probably won’t really like the film. But let’s examine...
Cloud Atlas is essentially six stories put together to make one big one: an unlikely camaraderie set in 19th century, a reporter in the ‘70s following a mysterious story, a clone leading a futuristic revolution, a passionate musician as he builds his 1930s masterpiece, a tribe’s survival against post-apocalyptic cannibals, and the antics of a publisher hiding out from a money-hungry gang of brothers in the present year.
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are among the many stars who grace the screen for this just-shy-of-three-hours storytelling mishmash. They play not one, two or even three roles in the film – they in fact all play an impressive six or seven roles each! And this I must say is my favourite aspect of Cloud Atlas. The chopping and changing of characters was on par with The Nutty Professor (yes I am referencing The Nutty Professor in a Cloud Atlas review), proving just as effective. And here each actor gives outstanding performances in each of their roles, in each of the stories. I particularly loved Hugo Weaving’s League of Gentlemen-esque disturbing nurse character.
Here’s the thing though: for me the stories didn’t actually mesh into one, and I feel... cheated. Tom Hanks’ introductory voiceover assured me that if I could ‘extend [my] patience, [I’ll] find there is a method to all this madness.’ I invested 172 minutes of patience, only to find myself none the wiser by the end.
But I honestly wanted to love Cloud Atlas, despite not having read the book – I really did. With all the hype about it being the ‘unfilmable novel’ and hearing others’ urges to give it a go, I was expecting to be mentally challenged and taken on a wild journey. I expected a butterfly effect kind of film, looping and meandering through time and philosophy. Well, all of the above was true... just minus coherence.
The six stories might well have done better on their own as six separate films. The common string that was supposed to tie them together was not explicitly woven through nor explained, and I felt confused more often than not. Pardon my want for some spoon-feeding but a little bringing us up to speed wouldn’t have gone amiss here. Movies based on books are the bluffer’s way to knowing a classic story and you’d hope that the translation of literature to film is mindful of the contextual details a cinema-goer needs. Cloud Atlas, however, fails to offer up clarification.
Don’t get me wrong though – at no point of the film did I ever feel bored. The visuals, rich with beautiful sets and costumes, kept me highly entertained and the jumping storyline at least kept me engaged. Still, no sooner had I settled into one of the strands than another was introduced for me to grapple with, and so it played out for three hours. And trying to decipher the tribe’s lingo didn’t help either. Dolby surround sound notwithstanding.
Cloud Atlas, technically, has everything going for it: stunning cinematography, a brilliantly diverse and talented cast, a plethora of emotive themes – even an injection of slapstick humour. I just think it tried to achieve too much. Perhaps my want for a core connection between the stories misguided me from understanding the Wachowskis’ actual intentions. Perhaps hoping for a cause and effect – where if one did a bad thing in one life, the next would be affected – was not where this was supposed to go. I don’t know. Perhaps this film wasn’t even supposed to fulfil these wants and needs of the average film-goer.
Hailed by other critics as a beautiful mess, I have to agree. It’s only on the points of clear and ‘clever’ cohesion that I beg to differ. There is something for everyone though; love, murder, friendship, heartbreak, comedy, scandal, and I can pick out the bits and pieces of the film that I genuinely like, but I can’t say that it was an overall masterpiece. It was more a monster of pieces.
My verdict: big budget – yes; big cast – yes; big story – yes. Too big. Cloud Atlas is most definitely up there in the clouds, but I’m in two minds. Maybe I’ll give it another viewing before I give it a final thumbs-down.
Cloud Atlas hits UK cinemas February 22nd.