Cloud Atlas – an epic tale brought to life by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer

David Mitchell’s award-winning book, Cloud Atlas, was considered by many to be unfilmable. With a vast story spanning multiple time periods and an underlying message about how we are all connected, it seemed like an impossible task with too much scope to bring to life within one film. However the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer have done just that with a collaborative singular film based on the book.

There are 6 stories in total: in 1849 a young lawyer called Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) travels across the Pacific to conduct a business arrangement for slaves. But on the ship back home he becomes sick and meets a stowaway on-board. In England in 1936 musician Robert Frobisher writes to his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) about his new job for composer Vyvyan Arys (Jim Broadbent) while attempting to write his own piece of work called ‘The Cloud Atlas Sextet’. In the early seventies journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) has a chance meeting with the same, now much older, Rufus Sixsmith. But this meeting leads her straight into a dark and dangerous mystery that she feels compelled to unravel. Back in the present day (2012) publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is pursued by gangsters looking for money they believe is owed to their family, but he ends up hiding in an even direr situation. Meanwhile in futuristic Neo Seoul, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is a genetically-engineered clone working a monotonous restaurant job. When another of the workers rebels though, she becomes curious about life outside and wonders if there is any chance of escape… And even further into the post-apocalyptic future, Zachry (Tom Hanks) is plagued by visions of doubt when Meronym (Halle Berry), a woman from a more technologically advanced society, arrives in their small village with a quest of her own to fulfil.

While all of these stories sound wildly different, the book connects them through similar themes and incidents. All of the characters throughout face a struggle in some shape or form. All of them are trying to escape and find something better in their lives; some meaning or an answer of some sort. And the script written by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer reflects this perfectly.

However the structure in this film is handled slightly differently than the book. David Mitchell shows each story in chronological order, stopping each one halfway through to move on to the next time period, then returning to each later on to conclude them. But for the film the Wachowskis and Tykwer have decided to show each story, not in order, but at the same time, jumping back and forth between each as they unfold. Sometimes we stay with one tale for a while, watching events progress until a cliffhanger moment (that leaves us eager to return to it later on), before moving to the next time period. Other times the film flits back and forth between brief moments as something else links them together: a theme, a shot, even a feeling…  It is this structural decision in their script for Cloud Atlas that truly shows how each of these characters interrelate across time and with each other. Rather than becoming a confusing mess though, this changing between the multiple storylines is masterfully handled by the writers/directors and makes complete sense throughout – quite an achievement when you consider the vast range of all 6 stories. Their impeccable script also makes each narrative feel as important as the last with equal weight used for every tale.

Another genius idea the Wachowskis and Tykwer have used to show the connection of the tales, is to have the same actors play different roles in each story. While the prosthetics don’t always work – in particular when actors are playing different races – the actors more than make up for it by creating distinctive and memorable characters for each tale. Tom Hanks is superb, in particular as the conflicted Zachry in the post-apocalyptic future who begins to doubt his faith, and also in a brief appearance as a friendly scientist in the seventies timeline. However Hanks’ appearance as an Irish gangster in the present day story is a little cringey (not to mention stereotypical). Halle Berry, an actor who I sometimes think is overrated, is actually brilliant here. As journalist Luisa Rey she is intelligent and steadfast, and as the futuristic Meronym she is similarly strong, but also gentle and kind-hearted. Both Hanks and Berry also expertly handle the difficult futuristic style of dialogue used for this post-apocalyptic time period and make it understandable for the viewers.

Jim Broadbent is another great standout, especially as the eccentric and increasingly desperate Timothy Cavendish and Jim Sturgess is good as the kindly Adam Ewing and the equally caring Hae-Joo Chang in the futuristic time period. James D’Arcy is also excellent as Rufus Sixsmith. He is the only actor who plays the same role across two time periods (1936 and the seventies) and he distinguishes between the two brilliantly – the young Rufus full of hope and love, the older Rufus filled with regret and longing; a much more mournful performance. Doona Bae also creates a beautiful character in the role of Sonmi-451, all wide-eyed expressions of fear and curiosity as she begins to learn the true horrors of the world around her. However one of my overall favourites in Cloud Atlas is Ben Whishaw as the young, capricious composer Robert Frobisher, who steals any scene he is in (as he does in any film).  And my other favourite has to be Hugo Weaving who really transforms himself between each tale – each time the villain, but always in a different way. Two of his standout roles here are the crow-like, unnerving character he plays in the post-apocalyptic future called Old Georgie: a personification of Zachry’s doubt. And he also dons a dress to play horrid Nurse Noakes in the present day, a boisterous character that adds a bit of comic relief to proceedings.

The onscreen design for each of the stories has also been created so that each time period has a unique feel to them and so they can be distinguished from each other. For instance the story in 2012 is treated like a sort of slapstick farce, Timothy Cavendish getting into all sorts of capers so he can escape, while the story of Neo Seoul is pure sci-fi and has a film noir feel to it. This distinct style for each story may be down to the fact that the directors each took a particular time period to direct themselves (for example the Wachowskis directed the Neo Seoul segment and Tykwer did the present day story). But whatever the reason it works brilliantly and is just one of the techniques used in Cloud Atlas that makes it so compelling to watch.

Cloud Atlas won’t be to everyone’s taste though. Those hoping to see a simple drama will be confused by this film when it poses more questions than it answers. The running time of just under 3 hours also won’t be appealing to everyone – it was obviously going to be long though, considering the scale of the book. However if you watch Cloud Atlas without thinking too much about where each story is heading, enjoying them while they last, the film overall is clever, beautiful and emotional, filled with poignant moments throughout.

While the idea won’t appeal to everyone, Cloud Atlas is a masterful achievement in filmmaking. The Wachowski siblings and Tykwer have brought a brilliant book to life with their clever script, design, direction and through the unique idea of having the same actors play different roles. The prosthetics don’t always work, but that doesn’t matter. What really makes an impact from watching Cloud Atlas is the epic and touching story of loss and love that is guaranteed to leave a tear in your eye.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on March 14, 2013.

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