By Zig Marasigan
The movie-going public let out a silent gasp of surprise when the trailer of Cloud Atlas first hit. The trailer was six minutes long; nearly three times longer than average. But the true surprise was that the trailer sparked interest in a story that, at first, felt far too ambitious to be made into a film. Surprisingly, the trailer has turned out to be an incredibly accurate depiction of the final product. Like its trailer, Cloud Atlas is long, convoluted and incredibly beautiful.
That may sound like a damning (if not confusing) summation of the film, but Cloud Atlas isn’t a work that takes kindly to summaries – most especially simple ones.
The film follows six distinct story lines across six separate periods in history, from a 19th century transpacific voyage to the very end of human civilization. The main characters themselves are as varied as the tales that nest them; a highly-educated lawyer (Jim Sturgess), a struggling European composer (Ben Whishaw), an aging has-been publisher (Jim Broadbent), a feisty tabloid journalist (Halle Berry), a futuristic female clone (Doona Bae) and a post-apocalyptic herdsman (Tom Hanks) round-up the film’s almost record-breaking cast of characters.
At first, the stories seem only obliquely related. One character is referenced in one story and appears in another. But the true spine of Cloud Atlas is held together by the fact that its actors play multiple roles. Characters are reincarnated multiple times throughout history and are often times forced to suffer (or relive) the consequences of a previous life. Reincarnation is a strong theme in Cloud Atlas, and one that’s tackled in ways not found in David Mitchell’s original novel.
As a film, Cloud Atlas is ambitious in every sense of the word. Directed by Andy and Lana Waichowsky and Tom Twyker, the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s genre-bending epic, is a self-styled cinematic tour de force. Clocking a near three hours in length, the film’s running time is an immediate challenge for even the most seasoned of movie-goers. Even then, each of the stories feel awkwardly compressed and rushed at times. The first hour of Cloud Atlas is particularly taxing, as the film desperately tries to setup its six separate storylines. But while the film admittedly flounders at points, it does culminate into something strong, resonant and memorable.
A good reason for this is that Cloud Atlas takes a good number of liberties with its source material. While this may seem like a cardinal sin to fans of the novel, the changes only offer to heighten the emotional crux of the story. Admittedly, some of the film’s greatest scenes are those born out of the minds of the filmmakers, not from the author.
There are fewer faults more damning than ambition. But it’s that same ambition, for better or worse, that fuels each of the scenes behind Cloud Atlas. It’s an attempt that feels desperately awkward in the film’s almost bludgeoning first hour, but ends in a bold statement on life, present, past and future.
While most critics are easily satisfied by simply calling books “better” than the film, Cloud Atlas manages to deftly elude that lazy reprimand. Instead, Cloud Atlas feels like an expansion to the original novel. And while audiences unfamiliar to the book might find more than a few things to enjoy about Cloud Atlas, readers of the original material will find themselves with more things to look forward to.
Cloud Atlas is a film that isn’t easily recommended. It is polarizing, divisive and potentially offensive in its ambition. But for fans of the original novel and for audiences willing to take a chance, it’s a film worthy of both attention and discussion.
In a very real sense, Cloud Atlas is; itself, a reincarnation. Having been born in the mind of its author David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas has moved on from its life on the page to a brand new embodiment on the screen.
It is a life that isn’t perfect, but in the end, what life is?
Zig Marasigan has written for a number of films for Star Cinema, and is a film critic on Kristn.com. He last wrote for us when he reviewed Cloud Atlas the book, and you can read his piece by clicking here. You can also follow him on Twitter: @todayisallihave.