After You've seen Cloud Atlas, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special with Dan Kois, Dana Stevens, and John Swansburg.
It’s possible, if daunting, to imagine a brilliant movie that could be conjured out of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas—a film that would play with the language of cinema the way Mitchell’s nimble, tricksy book plays with the English language.* It would have to be an adaptation that opened up like an accordion to contain six separate mini-movies: a Master and Commander-style shipboard adventure, a love story set in pre-WWII England, a ’70s paranoid thriller, a farcical jailbreak picture, and not one but two sci-fi films set in separate dystopic futures. And such a film would have to leap among all these separate storylines, each with its own distinct voice and style, while elaborating like a symphony on the work’s larger theme—which, without spoiling, I can say has to do with the eternal recurrence of souls through time, and the lasting karmic echo of both good and evil deeds.
Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Cloud Atlas is emphatically not that movie. Where the book is sinuous and oblique, their film is galumphing and heavy-handed, its rare flights of lyricism stranded between long stretches of outright risibility. And yet there’s something commendable about the directors’ commitment to their grandiose act of folly. This movie is, for the most part, execrable, but a part of me enjoyed it—I never, for example, begrudged it its running time, which at 2 hours and 50 minutes is saying something.
Much of the fun to be had in watching Cloud Atlas lies in puzzling out what the filmmakers were even trying to do: I’m not sure they themselves knew (or agreed) entirely. The Wachowskis have summed the movie up as the story of how Tom Hanks evolves over centuries from a bad person to a good person, but that description doesn’t really jibe with what we see onscreen (nor does Tykwer’s assertion that the actors are “playing souls, not characters”). Rather, Hanks (along with Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, and other actors) appears as a series of individuals throughout history, each of whose acts will have an impact, positive or negative, on generations of lives to come. It’s not the case, quite, that each successive Berry or Hanks is the reincarnation of the previous one; rather, they play different people over a five-century span whose lives crisscross and mirror one another in such a way as to suggest some sort of trans-historical cosmic order.
Thus, in the opening frame story, we see Hanks as a disfigured old man, musing by the fire in what appears to be a futuristic Stone Age. Next, he’s a dubiously ethical doctor aboard a ship bound across the Pacific to San Francisco in 1849. In 1973, he’ll pop up as a tormented (and turtlenecked) engineer at a nuclear plant, debating whether to leak an incriminating inspection document to a prying tabloid reporter (Berry). In 2012, Hanks has a brief (and highly unconvincing) turn as a cockney gangster-turned-memoirist who takes shocking revenge on a snooty book critic. And in some year so far into the apocalyptic future it’s dated only as “106 years after the Fall,” Hanks plays a pelt-clad, crude-tool-wielding family man who must team up with a high-tech visitor (Berry) to save his wife and daughter from a tribe of marauding cannibals led by Hugh Grant.
In between, there are storylines that focus on other actors as well. In the early 1930s, a young British composer (Ben Whishaw) becomes the amanuensis for a much older and more famous composer (Jim Broadbent), and the two men fall into a difficult relationship that’s half love affair, half murderous rivalry. And in the 22nd century, a cloned fast-food worker raised in sterile isolation (Doona Bae) begins to develop first a consciousness and then a conscience, eventually taking up arms in a rebellion against the totalitarian state. This clone-wars story is the most visually inventive of the six plotlines, even if it does borrow some of its boldest images from pre-existing sci-fi dystopias, from the Wachowskis' own The Matrix to that ever-reliable template for bleak-yet-rad futurescapes, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
The only storyline in Cloud Atlas that gave me sustained pleasure—and laughs that weren’t at the movie’s expense—was the plot (directed by Tywker) involving Jim Broadbent as a shabby-genteel London publisher who must go into hiding when pursued by a client’s thuggish family, and eventually finds himself being held prisoner in an old-folks’ home by a sadistic Hugo Weaving in hideous latex-assisted drag. Broadbent has a wildly expressive face and a gift for broad, self-mocking comedy: his double-takes and bewildered expressions are like something out of a Wallace and Gromit short, and the scenes in which he and a group of fellow residents mount a plan to bust out of the nursing home is the movie’s delightfully unserious high point. Broadbent is also exceptionally good as the aged composer who takes in Ben Whishaw: an intimate scene between the two at the piano was one of the rare moments in which this floridly excessive movie actually touched me emotionally.
Too much of the rest of Cloud Atlas founders in sentimentality, gooey New Age aphorisms, or gleefully vindictive bursts of gory violence (some scenes, especially in the future-set stories, evince a queasy mixture of all three). “The weak are meat, the strong do eat,” snarls Hanks early in the film as that morally bankrupt shipboard doctor. You may feel you’ve lived as many lifetimes as Hanks himself by the time his post-apocalyptic self reappears to put that maxim to the test, but it’s not clear that either he or humanity at large have made that much spiritual progress. Throughout the movie, the directors’ dark vision of history as a ruthless march toward the abattoir coexists uneasily with their romanticization of individual acts of heroism. I can’t get into the larger moral questions the movie raises without major plot spoilage, but I’m not sure the Wachowskis’ and Tykwer’s almost Marxist vision of human history as a succession of upwardly scaleable acts of compassion and vengeance is, in the end, as uplifting as they mean it to be.
Correction, Oct. 26, 2012: This article originally dated the novel's release to 2005. It was published in 2004. (Return to the corrected sentence.)