Cloud Atlas ★★★

The Wachowski siblings have always been ambitious filmmakers even if they have overreached themselves on more than a few occasions. Cloud Atlas is undoubtedly their most ambitious project to date both thematically and logistically. Three directors, six interweaving stories and a big budget independent production dealing with existential questions: At worst it is career suicide, at best filmmakers’ folly.

Although David Mitchell’s original novel deals with the concept of storytelling it never seemed a natural fit for the silver screen. It is simply too dense and sprawling to be considered commercially viable. Therefore it took filmmakers with the vision and financial clout to bring this adaptation into the world. For all its faults, and it does have many, it is hard not to admire the confidence and audacity of its three directors.

Cloud Atlas explores six stories, from 1849 to a far flung future, and each self-contained yet inexplicably linked. As they unfold, the eternal connections that bind them are slowly uncovered to reveal a tapestry of interconnectedness and predestination. Foregoing the novel’s nested bell curve structure for a constantly crisscrossing narrative; the film pointlessly messes with the structure and strips the connected stories of their symmetry. Whilst this new structure is smartly edited and affords the filmmakers the opportunity to clearly highlight the film’s many connections it also never allows any of the individual stories to breathe meaning everything feels rushed and underdeveloped despite the film’s arse-numbing length.

At least the directors should be commended for making such an intricately plotted story coherent and easy to follow. After a dizzying and protracted scene-setter the stories fall into a familiar routine that allows the audience to piece together the individual plots and how they all interlock. Dialogue drifts from one story to the next whilst motifs are shared across history like ripples and echoes through time. This new crisscrossing structure does at least reinforce the film’s major themes of reincarnation and eternal souls, even if it does come at a costly price.

That price is a schizophrenic tone as the film lurches quickly from farce to conspiracy thriller to a dystopian action movie. The constant fluctuations between these tonally different tales may stop the film from becoming boring but it also strips the individual stories of their potency. For example, the tension of the ‘70s set cat and mouse thriller can be instantly undone when cutting to a broadly comic care home farce and this happens time and again as if the film is doomed to repeat its own mistakes in the same way the characters do.

As well as the unifying themes of interconnectedness each story explores the concepts of freedom and oppression as well as the tradition of storytelling itself. The novel explored this latter issue in greater detail with each story existing in a different form (journal entries, a series of letters etc.) which is obviously not possible in an adaptation of this kind. However, there are still traces of this tradition of passing down stories through generations and ages with physical remnants of earlier stories existing in the present (for example, the love letters that frame the 1930s set story reappear forty years later during the industrial conspiracy thriller).

Yet for all its ambition and clever plotting it is hard to escape the fact that six decent stories do not equal one great film. Whether in isolation or taken as a whole, the stories are never quite as compelling as they should be, either relying on tired clichés (the Neo Seoul story in particular) or being forgettable fluff (the nursing home escape). Once you ignore its tangled structure the stories are frustratingly shallow and wrapped up in a hollow cod philosophy that only gives the illusion of depth and complexity. Also, for a film about connections I never felt connected to the characters or their situations.

Despite the myriad of stories and number of directors, Cloud Atlas manages to be visually cohesive with stunning photography and effective special effects. Whilst some of the computer-imagery during the more elaborate sequences fails to convince, each world feels real and lived in. Given the film’s reliance on makeup and prosthetics, it is testament to the artists behind the scenes that the actor transformations are so convincing, for the most part.

Whilst it is an interesting experiment to have the same actors play multiple roles across the different stories it can turn the film into a distracting game of Guess Who? as you try and work out who Tom Hanks will play next. In fact by the end it resembles an elaborate and extended episode of Mr. Benn with the fancy dress routines proving to be more interesting than the actual stories. However, the gimmickry of the makeup should not distract from some excellent performances. Whilst each actor inevitably struggles with at least one of their many roles the performances are a major factor in the film’s success and helps tie its many strands together.

Cloud Atlas is audacious, ridiculous, glorious and deeply flawed. Despite its many faults - faults that would normally overwhelm a film - it manages to succeed thanks to its boldness and scale. The Wachowskis and Tykwer may not have created a modern classic but they have crafted one of the most ambitious and fantastical cinematic curios of their age.