The minds behind The Matrix trilogy and Run Lola Run deliver a bold adaption of David Mitchell’s beloved novel, which weaves six interconnected stories across hundreds of years, suggesting that one’s actions will affect (his own) future lives.
Who’s in it? Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Zhou Xun. All cast members play multiple roles across the six stories.
What’s it about? It’s pointless for me to summarize the half-dozen plots, because the film is not so much about what is going on (though the drastically different settings are quite visually magnificent), but rather how characters react to their given circumstances. Who do they trust? Who do they choose to help, if anyone? What motivates them? What are the consequences of their decisions?
While Mitchell’s book hints at several reincarnations of the same person (identifiable by a peculiar birthmark) from 1850 until the post-Apocalyptic distant future, the adaptation expands this “everything is connected” theme… and then proceeds to hit you over the head with it again and again.
What’s good? As a fan of the uniquely structured book — which incorporates modified versions of English in its two future-set storylines — I was quite curious to see how in the heck everything would translate onto the silver screen. I was also straight-up worried about the movie’s nearly three-hour-long running-time. Thankfully, the writing and directing team of Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis managed to keep the action moving, and I didn’t check the clock once. Had the trio not abandoned the novel’s Russian-nesting-doll arrangement in favor of continually flowing scenes that jump around between the six plots, things might have grown tedious. It wasn’t as cool as the set-up of the book, that’s for sure, but at least you could keep the different characters’ stories straight.
As mentioned earlier, the film is quite an eyeful, with the ship/ocean scenes and Asian-city-of-the-future scenes being the most memorable. Further, the cast’s ability to disappear into their several roles is amazing (and I’m not just talking about the makeup). I felt the strongest segments were also the most emotional ones: a young musician’s attempt at fame and fortune by way of assisting a fading composer (told through letters to his true love), and a superstitious tribesman’s internal struggle after a mysterious, intimidating woman asks for his help.
What could’ve been better? My least favorite story — both in the book and the movie — was that of an older man who’s trying to escape a nursing home. It took on a slapstick tone that didn’t fit at all with the rest of the film. And while astounding feats of prosthetic-wear and makeup application are featured throughout Cloud Atlas, there were a few REALLY off-looking characters. By the end of the movie I felt like all of the multiple-role-playing turned into a gimmicky “Guess who THIS is?” game, which distracted from the theme of interconnected souls who will continue to cross paths for all eternity. Not like Tykwer and the Wachowskis were going to let you forget about that theme, though. It’s in the trailers, it’s on the poster, and it’s in your face throughout the movie in the form of voiceovers or cheesy speeches inserted awkwardly into a character’s dialogue. I prefer a film to serve up its message in a bit more subtle manner.
The bottom line: There’s something to be said for taking a sprawling novel that many deemed “unfilmmable” and turning it into a highly watchable and overall entertaining three-hour-long movie. Everyone involved deserves kudos for pulling it off as well as they did… but the book is still way better.
(Since I finished the novel shortly before seeing the movie, I’m very curious to hear from anyone who saw the movie but hasn’t read the book. Could you follow all of the storylines? Did everything make sense? I thought that the two future-set plots would’ve been tough to understand without all of the extra details and context provided in the book.)