Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same name, “Cloud Atlas” is a tapestry of (mostly) small but transformative stories featuring a kind of recurring cast of characters: The novel and the film aim to demonstrate that souls travel through time, living again and again on a single winding path to achieve something like enlightenment – or at least to revisit those we’ve connected to in previous lives. The title takes its name from a critical piece of music – “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” – that is the subject of one of the vignettes and reappears in one form or another throughout the rest.
“Cloud Atlas” was a deeply personal undertaking for Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski, who publicly came out as transgender this past summer and who told The Wrap that she co-wrote and co-directed the adaptation to influence and educate transphobic people “who want to lynch me, who want to crucify me.” Gender as well as racial lines are blurred in the film, with actors playing up to six different roles among the century-spanning vignettes. Both Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving appear as male and female characters, with several other actors playing multiple ethnicities – that latter a risky creative choice that has unsurprisingly prompted some criticism.
Too often, “Cloud Atlas” seems to be celebrating its own presumed originality and ambition, insisting the audience do the same. It’s as if the filmmakers are hoping it will be enough for the audience to know that they went for broke (quite literally – the co-directors put up an undisclosed amount of their own money after their financier went bankrupt just days before they were to begin filming; the total budget topped $100,000,000). It’s harder for us to share in the filmmakers’ and actors’ enthusiastic pride, which seems to have clouded their own vision -- it stands too as an obstacle to our engagement. Yes, we are all very impressed with Hugh Grant and Halle Berry for allowing makeup artists to render them unrecognizable – how brave and cheeky! -- but audiences have tired of being asked to love a movie simply because its highly paid actors have allowed themselves to appear as something other than their beautiful selves.
That said, the filmmakers’ palpable earnesty makes one feel like a curmudgeon for judging “Cloud Atlas” too harshly. Novels are always a challenge to adapt to film, particularly one like Mitchell’s epic – his lyricism and literary devices simply cannot be translated to the screen, even with a nearly three-hour running time -- of which the audience feels every last second. (Mitchell himself once said that his novel was unfilmable, but eventually came around.) In order to endure the overwhelming expansiveness of the film, a viewer may find herself investing in one or two of the stories and waiting patiently for the others to pass by. She will not be waiting long: Twyker and the siblings Watchowski do an admirable job of keeping the balls in the air, moving each vignette forward one plot turn at a time before turning to the next.
There are six narrative threads in total, all meant to culminate in an observation to end all existential observations: “Everything is connected,” which is the movie’s much-touted tag line. The earliest story takes place in 1849, and the remaining travel forward in time to the 24th century: here we are presented with a fetching visual landscape that is one part sleek futurism and one part dystopic ruin. How Berry and Tom Hanks, the costars of this “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Evrything’ After,” are able to utter the invented post-apocalyptic language (which, when it can be understood, sounds all too much like an unfortunate caricature of plantation dialect) without choking or laughing is a marvel. Viewers will not have as easy a time swallowing it.
The other Berry-centric story is burdened by made-for-television heavy handedness and comically implausible near-death scenes; yet another chapter begins and ends with scenes of a tragic choice whose logic is not adequately explained in the interim, stripping it of the intended emotional impact. Ironically or not, the vignette that takes itself the least seriously is the easiest to root for (perhaps because it is set in the present day); and this particular reviewer would happily take in as a full-length feature the sci-fi chapter “An Orison of Sonmi-451.”
Those among us with the softest hearts (and the steeliest bladders) will surely find something to love about “Cloud Atlas” – whether it’s one character multi-generational road to redemption, a raucous nursing home getaway scene, or Berry’s tremendous 1973 hairdo. Jim Broadbent, among the half dozen coveted actors who take on as many roles, seems to have had the easiest time navigating the unavoidable self-consciousness that accompanies a casting strategy that calls so much attention to itself. He’s clearly having fun with it, but not at our expense; and is a joy to watch even when he inhabits someone ghastly.
Fortunately for at least one Wachowski, the experience of making “Cloud Atlas” was reward enough that the lukewarm reviews won’t burn too much. “We love it so much, and I’m so proud of it that I’m kind of OK with whatever happens,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve already in a way received so much from the process of making it that I’m happy no matter what.”That’s good to hear.