Cloud Atlas (2012)

Ben Wishaw, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, meh, review, Tom Hanks

Writing this blog only makes me realise just how little I’ve read of contemporary writers and I end up feeling like the biggest failure of a Literature graduate. Whilst I’m sat here with an insane amount of knowledge about novels of sensibility, I can’t even remember the last Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel I read. Thanks to some quick Wikipedia-ing I’ve discovered that it was the 2007 shortlisted On Chesil Beach(which is only because I adore Ian McEwan). I own a lot of the novels but just haven’t got round to reading them yet (not even The Sense of An Ending which is fucking tiny). I’m so ashamed. Given this fact, it will come as no shock to you that I have yet to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. However, I have enough of an awareness of the basic details surrounding its structure and content to understand why it was referred to as one the many, so-called, “unfilmable” novels. So it was always going to be a massive undertaking for Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s to create something worthy of the Richard and Judy Award winning novel.

It’s fairly difficult to summarise the plot of Cloud Atlas as the narrative is made up of several plotlines set across six different time periods. These short tales move us from the South Pacific in 1849, to the UK in the 1930s, followed by a quick stop in San Francisco in the 70s, then modern day England before finishing us off with two glimpses into the near future. The two directing teams divided these six narratives between themselves with the Wachowski’s taking the two futuristic plots and the earliest one; leaving Tykwer to work with the three ‘modern’ storylines. The effect of this split is interesting but a little jarring thanks to the contrast in styles. The Wachowski’s bring their usual focus on visuals and style which often feels in conflict with Tykwer’s championing of character and drama.
Of all the sections, it is the vision of the Korean future that is the most disappointing and that’s even before you consider implications of the awkward feeling you get from seeing make-up required to make British and American actors look more Korean. Taking inspiration from classic science-fiction such as Blade Runner, this CGI backdrop and uninspiring revolution plot have less humanity and emotion than the clone-workers it depicts.  
In fact, both of the later storylines fall short of their potential and the tale of a post-Fall tribe does get fairly tedious; despite seemingly being placed in the role of primary tale. No time is given to introducing the main characters and exploring their motivations. We see Zachry (Tom Hanks) conversing with an invisible-to-everyone-else figure but this is just left undeveloped. Unlike the Neo-Seoul section, where you could comfort yourself that time that could have been spent on character development was put into CGI, the post-Fall tribe has very little going for it expect an underused group of cannibals.
It is the 1936 narrative that is the most engaging: following a young musician (Ben Whishaw) as he attempts to make a name for himself. He does this by taking a job as … to struggling composer (Jim Broadbent). Whishaw and Broadbent are both incredible performers and really sell their roles as tortured artist and desperate wash-up.
Broadbent is next seen in the modern day tale included for a bit of light relief. Taking the tone and look of a classic Ealing comedy, publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself on the run from a group of angry Irish men. Going to his brother (Tom Hanks) for help, he is double-crossed and shut away in a nursing home. I think Tykwer handles this section well enough but, as with the rest of the vignettes, there is an undeniable sense that everything we are watching is just aimless.
This is not a film to promote developed story or character but a film that celebrates wigs, prosthetics and make-up. In order to project the themes of destiny and soul mates, the fairly small main cast have been placed in multiple roles throughout the film. It is an interesting concept but there are some weak points within the cast that means, no matter how visually different they appear, many performers just don’t convince as their various personas. Tom Hanks, for example, plays a role in all six stories but it is almost impossible to see anyone other than Tom Hanks on screen. Whether he is covered with facial hair; wearing 70s glasses and a turtle neck; sporting a shaved head, goatee and diamond earring; or covered in futuristic tattoos, you can still only see Tom Hanks playing dress-up. Perhaps this is just one of the inevitable problems that would arise in such an ambitious mission.
After all, adapting David Mitchell’s literary masterpiece was never going to be an easy task and certain sacrifices and changes were going to have to be made to make it work on screen. The most obvious these can be seen within the overall structure and the way the different strands flow into one another. From what I can tell with my limited knowledge, one of the reasons that Cloud Atlas worked so well as a novel was down to its structure. The narrative set furthest into the future acted as the central piece and the other stories fell into two halves on either side of it. This means that each narrative leads into the next with the aid of discovered written accounts of the events. This helps to highlight one of Mitchell’s central themes: the interconnectivity that can occur through literature.
The directors chose to have the individual stories cutting back and forth seemingly at random. I have to admit that this works at certain points because it becomes even more obvious where events are mirrored in each story. However, this lack of definition ultimately just has the effect of making the linear structure much more confusing. You don’t stick with one plotline long enough to really get to grips with the events taking place. There is never enough time to get to know the characters and, therefore, connect with them. Any relationship or romantic feeling that develops just feels superficial because there is no time to explore it. Cloud Atlas relies on ambiguity to keep the plots moving and it is difficult to fully connect with a single strand let alone the whole tapestry. The endless cutting back and forth is, in a sense, blinding and the overall impact of each story is lessened. It just seems like a waste.
It was always going to be a fairly epic undertaking in adapting this novel but getting rid of the rigid structure has only made it more difficult. I imagine the decision was made because someone important decided that an audience wouldn’t be able to keep up with what was going on if there was any length of time between the start and conclusion of each tale. It is a ridiculous decision that, rather than making the film more accessible, often makes it harder to take in everything that is happening. Filmmakers need to stop believing that the majority of audiences are slobbering idiots who can’t follow a storyline unless their attention is constantly being grabbed by dramatic events and pretty colours.
I applaud the film-makers for taking on this task and I have to say that Cloud Atlas is certainly not the worst film ever made. It is a solid attempt at making a complicated literary vision work as a live-action adaptation. There just isn’t enough finesse on show here. Having three different directors working on six separate storylines just makes the overall film appear disjointed and unsteady. It is something that would have worked better in a more episodic form instead of trying to cram so many themes, characters and scenarios into one 172 minute long film. Unfortunately, this production was never going to live up to its extremely high expectations or sense of self-importance. What we have is a film that talks about big game but, when it comes down to it, has a great deal less to offer.

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