Some books are simply considered unfilmable. Reasons vary, but the vast majority of tomes given this designation are so complex that any attempt to adapt them for the big screen would be foolhardy.
But there are always filmmakers willing to take on that challenge, and the latest among them are Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). It’s plain to see why many, including David Mitchell, the book’s author, thought Cloud Atlas would never make it to the screen.
There are six stories, all of which take place at a different point in time, anywhere from the 19th century to an undetermined point in the far future. The stories include a man trying to survive an oceanic voyage; a young man serving an apprenticeship with a famous composer; a journalist looking to uncover a story at a nuclear facility; a book publisher’s ordeal in a nursing home; a clone trying to escape her life of servitude; and a tribe trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
The writers and directors whipsaw you from story to story, barely stopping to take a breath, let alone lay out proper introductions for the characters.
Then, of course, you have the multitude of characters needed to inhabit all of those stories. To solve that problem, almost every main actor in the film — including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon, among others — is called upon to play multiple roles.
For instance, Hanks plays everyone from an untrustworthy doctor on the cross-Pacific voyage to a gangster-turned-writer in the present day to a tribe leader in that far distant future. The amount of makeup and prosthetics required varies upon the role, with mixed results.
Some actors, especially in the story about the clone, completely disappear into the character. Others, in particular Hanks, are easily recognizable. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t act well; it’s just difficult, apparently, to make Hanks look like anyone but Tom Hanks wearing weird teeth or hair.
If there was any hope that the Wachowskis and Tykwer, who shared writing and directing duties, would ease the audience into this kind of mind-bender, that’s shot within the first five minutes. They whipsaw you from story to story, barely stopping to take a breath, let alone lay out proper introductions for the characters.
This continues throughout the film, with visits to some stories sometimes lasting no more than a few seconds. Still, no particular story is given a higher level of importance over any other, as the trio makes sure to check in with every story before too much time has passed.
It’s not until about an hour into the three-hour movie that it’s peculiar rhythm finally takes hold. But as confusing as the film is, the entertainment value is there from the beginning. Details within each story tantalize, keeping you present until the rewards start to get doled out.
However, the one thing that does get short shrift is emotion. All the jumping around prevents the audience from connecting strongly with any one particular character. There are certainly many moments of suspense, humor and sadness, but they’re dulled by the lack of solid relationships.
Although every actor does a great job of moving seamlessly from character to character, style points must be awarded to Berry, Broadbent and Weaving. They each play such a variety of personalities, ages and, in Berry’s and Weaving’s cases, genders. Their performances are an almost constant source of wonderment.
Cloud Atlas is unlike any movie I’ve ever seen, which is a good thing — for the most part. At least it shows that ingenious filmmakers will always find a way to tackle material previously deemed unfilmable. That’s great news for all movie fans.