Cloud Atlas is nothing if not ambitious, and it will stand or fall by one’s own personal susceptibility to cosmic interconnectedness and the like. Otherwise, it is a big, intelligent, rather whimsical journey beyond the realms of disbelief. Not unlike the recent cinema of Christopher Nolan, Cloud Atlas is big, fascinating and helplessly silly.
Cloud Atlas moves, often gracefully, through six different narratives set in six different times: 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2314. Generally, all six stories are of a rebellion against a repressive society and of a good deed inspiring future events and uprisings. The stories and the characters therein mirror other stories and characters, with most of the cast returning in each story.
It mirrors some of the themes of both The Matrix and Run Lola Run, so the choice of directors was an interesting one, though Tykwer has the upper hand with less ridiculous, though still quite unbelievable, material to work with.
When Godard makes a film, that film’s sheer incomprehensibility makes a critic stop, rewind and try again often with a help of some written supplementary material. Cloud Atlas is choppy and messy and not always entirely coherent, but, like Godard, it is more from a wealth of information than from a lack of it. Like the equally enigmatic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas marks one of the few times that Hollywood has used big spectacle and epic range to pursue the big questions of life. Cloud Atlas is certainly laudable from this perspective, but its ideas and answers are another matter and it is here that Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore rings a bell. Cloud Atlas suggests that events recur and souls develop through time and that people have been here before and have been beset by corresponding dilemmas. Everything happens for a reason and there is such a thing as reincarnation. To bring back Godard, that filmmaker plays with incomprehension but he always delivered a real-world message, be it political or artistic or social. Cloud Atlas makes our minds work hard, but the goal is ultimately a silly, fruitless one. Cloud Atlas makes us believe in an unreality, albeit a recognisably subversive and hopeful one, instead of offering us something that might impact on the here and now (it’s whimsical, likable but barmy 2012 sequence seems to be on the cusp of collapsing into the unreality of 2144 and 2314 dystrophies).
That said, the film is full of fascinating moments, such as when we see a journal being written in 1849 by Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is read 1936 by Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw). His letters detailing his impressions of the journals are re-read by an old friend Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) in 1973. He assists Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) with an investigation, which Rey will eventually write a book about, which will be published by Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in 2012. Timothy’s adventures will inspire a film that is watched in 2144 by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), who… Often this is conveyed rather intelligentally through montage where certain items or a voiceover mark the passing of time. It can sometimes recall the work of Chris Marker with its evocative representation of time, which is no bad thing.
Some difficulties remain. Some of the stories, especially 2012, are outright farce and fail to gel convincingly with the rest of the film, which can often be somber. Similarly, 2144 would be more emotionally effective if it had the time to be. Most damaging of all is the multiple roles that each actor plays. Many actors return to play older men and women under heavy make-up that really makes them look like monsters from The Lord of the Rings. This problem beset Clint Eastwood’s reasonable J Edgar last year and the make-up hasn’t improve since. More distracting still is the spectacle of seeing Jim Sturgess being made up to look Asian or Ben Whishaw playing a woman. The end credits run through each actor’s roles in order to reveal who played who, with Halle Berry playing a white Asian nurse being a real shock. Presumably the idea is to further suggest a link between otherwise related characters – Hugo Weaving almost always plays an evil henchman to Hugh Grant’s chief villian – but it is slightly off-putting. Cloud Atlas is a film that requires concentration and the casting seems slightly like an act of self-sabotage.