Cloud Atlas (dir. The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer, 2012) – A lawyer’s ocean voyage, a composer’s tale to his lover, a nuclear power plant mystery, a great nursing home escape, a Neo-Seoul rebellion, and a tribe’s travels in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Six dissimilar stories come together in an interconnected narrative.
This bold act will no doubt invite polarised views, but Cloud Atlas remains a gracefully realised epic that poses an intriguing puzzle of life to marvel at.
Cloud Atlas is a puzzle, and a grand one at that. Penned by David Mitchell, the novel’s layered premise has been called unfilmable and requires immense ambition to be realised.
What a tremendous achievement it is to see the great leviathan move through six very different parallels with grace on screen. It steers in daring directions, showing the thoughtful translation of words to visuals. Changes may disappoint those looking for a faithful adaptation, but they largely work for the visual language of film.
Beauty stretches far beyond the surface imagery into the story of ordinary souls, unaware of the extraordinary bond with strangers that birth their futures. Six inspired tales tell of the common disregard of impact and consequences behind each little choice we make. Some lives amount to a revolution, a few fall into a downward spiral of morality. All find themselves a constant part of another.
Tom Tykwer is an excellent fit, having previously delivered in the non-linear field with film class essential Run Lola Run. The Perfume director is also no stranger to building a character-driven story. Working together with the woe in Mitchell’s pithy words, he makes the strongest impression with lingering tragic romance Letters from Zedelghem (1936).
His second work Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (1973) holds less emotional weight but delivers adequate thrills along the way. Despite its relatively serious counterparts, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (2012) comfortably evokes laughter with perfect comic timing. I know, I know!
The Wachowskis shift the focus from characters to plot. Their expertise in the science fiction genre are re-demonstrated with the compelling revolution in An Orison of Sonmi-451 (2144). But they show no lack of human nature understanding in the story of a lawyer and a slave stowaway, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (1849).
Set in the far post-apocalyptic future, the visually artistic Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After (2321) has the leeway to be less grounded in reality. But it is perhaps the weakest for its predictability and often vexatious ramblings.
Themes of love and life itself tie these contrasting genres and decades together into one captivating tale. Old letters, birthmarks and the gorgeous composition Cloud Atlas Sextet twine each individual around the lives of others.
Some transitions are easier to discern than others. But the overall experience has the stunning ability to provoke differing levels of fascinating interpretations. Spanning across five centuries like an expansive version of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, the complicated timeline will render a single viewing insufficient.
Bringing these stories to life is the cast ensemble, who dons multiple looks and often appear unrecognisable. Jim Sturgess plays an angry Scottish soccer fan. Tom Hanks has fun with his angrier critic basher. Best of all, Hugo Weaving makes a convincing and terrifying female nurse.
Races and genders hardly matter. Doona Bae and Zhou Xun both took on Caucasian roles, while Halle Berry finds comfort in her part as a male doctor. One could find not just strength in the varying performances, but entertainment too.
Having set sail far beyond borders, the crew must have known they had to brave the impending waves of controversy. The latest episode saw race-bending in Cloud Atlas brought up again, particularly regarding the atrociously done ‘yellowface’ of the Neo-Seoul men.
I argue that the message is far from discrimination. As Robert Frobisher puts it, “All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention, if only one can first conceive of doing so.” And Cloud Atlas manages so, to beautifully transcend conventions of gender and race as to connect the seemingly different.