(The Wachowskis, Tom Twyker, 2012)
What Cloud Atlas does is take an "unfilmable" novel, and film it. David Mitchell's wildly ambitious epic novel is considered unfilmable not only because of its vast scale - with six storylines set in six distinct historical locations and dozens of important characters it presents a logistical nightmare - but because of its engagement with big themes of the type with which cinema traditionally struggles.
But the Wachowskis are nothing if not ambitious filmmakers, as anyone who has seen The Matrix trilogy or even their underrated flop Speed Racer will attest. Their collaborator here, German director Tom Twyker, has some history with adapting difficult novels, too, having brought Perfume to the screen in 2006.
Together they have managed to wrestle Mitchell's book into a big, wild mess of a film, replacing his russian doll structure with a more epileptic crosscutting but suggesting the interconnectedness that is one of Mitchell's implicit themes through the stunt of each cast member playing multiple roles across the various storylines. Thus Tom Hanks is the lead in the 2321 segments, playing Zachry, a goat farmer in a post-apocalyptic wilderness ("106 winters after the fall") whose encounter with Halle Berry's Meronym, a member of a society with some technology from before the fall changes both of their worlds, and he shows up in smaller parts in every other segment, as a poisoner-doctor in the 1849 segments, a hotel owner in 1936 Edinburgh, a Nuclear Scientist (who encounters and falls for another Berry character) in 1973's conspiracy thriller, an Irish gangster-author in 2012's dark comedy and an actor glimpsed in an old film in the dystopian sci-fi of 2144. In each story he is buried under make-up, bad teeth and a wig, and his accents jump across the globe, and the rest of the cast suffer exactly the same fate. Bae Doona and Jim Sturgess play a genetically-engineered clone and the underground rebel who releases her from a life of servitude in the 2144 section, and their affecting love story is mirrored by the same actors playing a couple in 1849, while Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant play varieties of evil across the ages, from Weaving's satanic "old Georgie" whispering in Zachry's ear, and Grant's Cannibal Warrior in 2321; to a Corporate CEO and his hired assassin in 1973. Sometimes the directors time their edits with the subtlety of a plane crash to underline the connections, and yet, at others the juxtapositions and similarities are unexpectedly moving.
All of this is a little undermined by the distancing, even distracting effect of all the make-up and the wigs - especially so when there are recognisably white actors playing Asian characters and vice versa - but it works more than it has any right to. Some sections are a lot better than others, and so the two sci-fi stories, directed by the Wachowskis, are the most compelling and beautiful on show here, while Twyker's 2012 black comedy starring Jim Broadbent and 1973 thriller are by far the weakest portions.
The themes the film attempts to engage with are so big and earnest that they need to be handled precisely, but instead there is a vagueness throughout that makes much of it feel a little too fuzzy and new age to have any meaningful resonance. Freedom is important, get it? Love too, thats a good thing.
The last act is filled with climaxes, and since the filmmakers turn more or less all of them into action scenes it plays like a long series of cliches and over-familiar set-ups, no matter that some of them feature excellence on a technical level. A barroom brawl follows a car-chase through a future city follows a skirmish with cannibals in the trees follows a gunfight and pursuit, etc etc.
But there are flashes of dazzling cinema here; with the Wachowskis in particular retaining some of their eye for what really works in genre storytelling and ability to world-build on a grand scale; and the cast are generally extremely impressive throughout. Bae Doona and Ben Whishaw particularly impress, and the photography by John Toll and Frank Griebe is suitably lush and stunning.
For such a long, ambitious film, Cloud Atlas is never remotely boring. If it is never quite good, either, that is down to a variety of factors, the most important of which brings me back to the first thing I said. some books are considered "unfilmable" for a reason.