Cloud Atlas

Pretentious mess or multilayered masterpiece? OLLIE BARTLETT reckons it’s closer to the latter…

cloud atlas doona bae ollie bartlett tom hanks

The 2004 novel Cloud Atlas has been described as unfilmable. It’s easy to see why: it not only faces us with six stories set in different eras – each with its own cast of characters – but also network of interwoven themes and recurring motifs. And that doesn’t even cover the additional challenge of having the principle cast pop up in each setting, – from the Americas to futuristic Korea – necessitating some serious usage of special effects. It could have been a messy fiasco. In fact, the result is a compelling, three hour long epic.

It was the promise of a Blade Runner-esque tale of a clone escaping from a life of servitude in twenty-second century Seoul that initially drew me to this film. But I was swiftly hooked by the other stories.  Some are poignant, like the tale of a student attempting to compose his masterpiece while working under a famous composer. Some are thrilling, like the account of a journalist’s investigation into an industrial conspiracy. And some – like the story of a man’s escape from a nightmarish retirement home – border on the farcical.  Navigating between each story is no smooth ride: we’re introduced to the successive main characters in quick succession, with no indication of the threads linking any of these disparate narratives together. Then, as the film progresses, the threads emerge as we realise characters are – subconsciously or otherwise – emulating those in the previous setting. It’s masterfully done.

Cloud Atlas is clearly a passion project for the directors and cast alike.  Directing was split between the Wachowskis (The Matrix) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Perfume: Story of a Murderer), so it all looks sumptuous and spectacular.  With a cast including Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon, you’d be hard-pressed to find so much talent put to such good use elsewhere. Two performances stuck out for me in particular. Tom Hanks, said to be a significant driving force during production, brings a fantastic energy to roles as diverse as a guilt-ridden tribesman in a post-nuclear apocalypse to a barely-coherent cockney thug in modern London. But the true star is South Korean actress Doona Bae in her Hollywood debut. Primarily as the escaped fabricant clone in New Seoul, but also in very credible and sympathetic supporting roles as a timid 19th century American housewife and a Mexican worker in 1970s San Francisco, Bae is just fantastic.

While the protagonists of each story make for excellent viewing, it’s often equally exciting to see how the actors all fit into the rest of the film.  I was surprised enough to see Hugh Grant playing a sleazy overseer in a consumerist cyberpunk dystopia, doubly so to see him appear as a cannibal chieftain a moment later.  Hugo Weaving makes a suitably menacing baddie in roles spanning five hundred years, both genders, and several ethnicities. Some transitions, however, are more digestible than others; as the media controversy surrounding the casting of Caucasian actors to play Asian characters demonstrates. The makeup certainly works better for some actors than others; all the effects in the world can’t make Weaving look convincingly Korean.

The film is subtle enough not to beat you around the head with its message of reincarnation, and the gradual revelation of the parallels between stories is rewarding enough to keep you emotionally involved until the end. Unfortunately, though, some of the editing risks undermining this. At times jarring, the film could have benefitted from some restraint to best exploit moments of building tension or cathartic payoff.

However, none of these issues were distracting enough to jolt me back to reality, and it’s a real pleasure to see such an ambitious film executed so well.  If you fancy something more challenging than the usual cinema fare, you should make the effort to see Cloud Atlas. Films like this don’t come along very often.