As unadaptable books go, David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas should have been less adaptable than most. A novel in six parts, set in six different timelines, written in six different prose styles, participating in six distinct genres ranging from 19th-century travel journal to post-apocalyptic science fiction, Cloud Atlas interrupts each of its narratives—except the central story—in its first half, then resumes them in its second. The mere structure of the book would have been enough to send most filmmakers walking away even before they considered the task of re-creating the way Mitchell weaves complementary themes and ideas into each narrative. His approach demands readers pay attention and make associations between its seemingly discrete storylines that he often didn’t make a point of underscoring.
The Cloud Atlas that made it to the screen doesn’t even attempt to replicate some of those elements, even throwing out some of the book’s most distinctive features by breaking from the structure and keeping to a single visual style. Instead, writer-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer take a different route to the same destinations as their source material, using the film medium to make dramatic and thematic connections in ways impossible on the page, rhyming story beats against one another and matching situations and visuals across timelines. A blink and a cut, and the distance between the South Seas of the near past and the far future disappears. A matched composition, and the parallels between a Korean dystopia and an act of corporate malfeasance in ’70s San Francisco are made.
It’s a beyond-ambitious undertaking, and at times an unwieldy one. To draw their narratives tighter, the filmmakers cast the same actors in different roles in each segment. To put it mildly, not everyone is Alec Guinness, nor does all the aging makeup rival Dustin Hoffman’s in Little Big Man. A striking presence with a limited range, Halle Berry fits better into some segments than others, but even Tom Hanks can’t rise to the challenge of some of the grotesques he’s asked to play, and the directors’ habit of casting some parts across ethnic and gender lines proves interesting in theory and distracting in practice. The film also sometimes has trouble keeping six narrative plates spinning at once, or at least keeping them spinning with the same energy. Returning from the breathtaking science-fiction energy of the Korea segment to the cozy, clumsy comedy of a storyline in which Jim Broadbent plays a small-time publisher wrongly committed to a nursing home, it’s hard not to feel let down.
These are real, and often significant flaws, but they’re flaws on the surface of a film more concerned with its depths. At first, the Wachowskis and Tykwer seem to have made coleslaw of Mitchell’s book, chopping and mixing and hoping for the best. What does the story of a young seafarer (Jim Sturgess) returning from a South Seas plantation, befriending a runaway slave (David Gyasi), and being slowly poisoned by a thieving doctor (Hanks) have to do with that of a poor, young composer (Ben Whishaw) assisting an aging composer (Broadbent)? Or the tale of a San Francisco gumshoe (Berry) investigating a nuclear plant? Or Broadbent’s imprisoned publisher? Or a clone (Doona Bae) bred to serve in a Seoul fast-food restaurant? Or a cowering tribesman (Hanks) being tormented by an evil spirit (Hugo Weaving) while navigating a world in which civilization collapsed long ago?
At first, nothing. Then, little by little, the pieces start to fit together. In Cloud Atlas’ most powerful stretches—which are slow to arrive and spread a bit too thin over its nearly three-hour running time—the film draws graceful connections between its parallel narratives. Initially, that’s by showing how the events of one story ripple out to the others. Whishaw’s composer reads the journal of Sturgess’ seafarer, events send Berry’s detective looking for a recording of Whishaw’s composition, and so on. Later, it’s by illustrating how the same themes and conflicts reappear in each of its characters’ lives, with a particular emphasis on the way those with power invariably exploit those without it—sometimes with whips and chains, sometimes more furtively.
The Wachowskis used science fiction to explore that same notion in The Matrix and its sequels, and in at least one respect, Cloud Atlas resembles those films (particularly the first, coherent one), becoming a stirring celebration of those who defy authority. It’s a movie-length rejection of oppression that values freedom as an absolute good, whatever its cost. In Cloud Atlas, science fiction is just one of the film’s modes, though it’s one of its most effective. Bae’s scenes in the Seoul of the near-future suggest the directors might easily have made another crowd-pleasing blockbuster as influential to this current decade as The Matrix was to the last.
Yet as mind-blowing as that film might have been, it necessarily would have been less ambitious than the film at hand. Cloud Atlas’ smooshing of Nietzschean eternal recurrence with an Eastern notion of souls striving to improve over many lives is New Age mush as metaphysics, but works wonderfully as metaphor. Measured scene by scene, the film isn’t always successful, and its transcendent moments make it easy to wish it could reach that elevated pitch more often. But Cloud Atlas is the sort of work where the big picture matters more than the details. It’s an imperfect film of great daring and tremendous humanity, a work of many stories, but a singular achievement.