1. Returning to slavery-era San Francisco from the Chatham Islands, a convalescent Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) must put his faith in either the sickly smiling Dr Goose or a Moriori stowaway; he keeps a diary while wrestling with his conscience… 2. Acting as an assistant to a famous but cantankerous old composer, bisexual wunderkind Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) finds Ewing’s diary and is inspired to complete his own great work; when Frobisher commits suicide, he leaves the finished composition to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith… 3. Now an old man and a nuclear physicist, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) shares a broken elevator with journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who then becomes embroiled in a plot to cover up a nuclear accident-in-waiting; she subsequently drafts a novel based on the conspiracy… 4. Ne’er-do-well publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), having dismissed Rey’s manuscript, receives his karmic comeuppance when he finds himself on the run and imprisoned in a bogus nursing home; later, he writes a screenplay based on his ordeals… 5. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a clone manufactured to work in a fast food joint, watches a snippet of Cavendish’s film after being liberated by union rebels; awakened to her plight, and that of her fellow clones, Sonmi broadcasts a public incitement to rebellion… 6. Living in a society where Sonmi-451 now is seen as a divine entity, post-apocalyptic goat herder Zachry (Tom Hanks) must choose between “Old Georgie” – a devilish vision whose whispered goads once saved him from cannibals – and Meronym, a “prescient” who would use her knowledge of the old technologies to send a distress signal to distant planets; ultimately, Zachry’s fate is determined by ripples spreading through time…
Those looking to locate Cloud Atlas somewhere within their cinematic experience should crane their necks no further back – be it with nostalgic gaze or crimped grimace – than Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Magnolia (1999). Both films run close to the three hour mark; both embrace a creative freedom (albeit from different geneses – whereas Anderson, on a high from the success of Boogie Nights, was given carte blanche by New Line Cinema, Cloud Atlas was independently produced and financed); and both feature ensemble casts, not merely for the purpose of stud-fastening their theatrical posters (indeed, although Tom Cruise subsequently won a Golden Globe for his enthusiastically misogynist portrayal of self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey – or what history may now show to have been method acting when the wind changed – Anderson at the time made a point of not over-publicising Cruise’s involvement) but rather to flesh out a collaged and in places tangentially linked potpourri of short life stories.
While Magnolia was a film as much about locale as it was an exploration of rutted, everyday tragedy and the more overt theme of happenstance so unlikely as to take on an aura of Fortean interconnectedness, Cloud Atlas scatters its six tales across time and place, ranging from the South Pacific (circa the mid nineteenth century abolitionist movement), through 1930s and present day UK, San Francisco in the early seventies, and then forward to a futuristic new Seoul and subsequently a post-cataclysmic, tribal Hawaii. Cloud Atlas is based on the eponymous novel (2004) by David Mitchell; but where Mitchell progressed sequentially through half each of the first five stories, pivoted on the whole of the sixth, and then reversed neatly back to the beginning, Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix; V for Vendetta) jump with whimsical, almost perverse abandon from story to story, thus taking the challenge and intrigue of Magnolia and stretching these to a point of disjointedness and gooey disorientation from which viewers must slowly, ever-so-slowly extricate their wretched and silicone bemired babel fish.
“While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to a disdain for flash-backs and flash-forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you, dear reader, can extend your patience for just a moment,” narrates Jim Broadbent as the weaselly Timothy Cavendish, anticipating, presumably, any real life criticism that might be forthcoming, “you will find there is a method to this tale of madness.”
Yet, whatever method there is appears, even to those who previously have exhibited a penchant for deconstructing such plot intricacies, to be obfuscation almost for the sake of it; or at charitable best a deliberate contrivance aimed at sublimating traditional (albeit puzzled together) narrative meaning into a more intuitive, artistic, almost osmotic appreciation. While the merits of this approach are debatable (and certainly, each individual story is diffused of some of its impact when picked at this way, rather than being consumed in one or two sittings; the purist cannot help but contrast with Dickens’s – or for those of us too ornery to bother, Blackadder’s – more straightforward exposition in A Christmas Carol; or indeed, with Tykwer’s own less convolutedly inventive Run Lola Run), even if we are to take Cloud Atlas at some emotive but intricately masqued face value, it is clear that Tykwer and the Wachowskis were looking at a different page of the cloud atlas when adapting their cumulus from Mitchell’s original cirrus. Where Mitchell speaks of “predacity” – the unchanging propensity for humans, individually or in groups, to make ill-use of each other – Cloud Atlas instead takes the more metaphysical aspect of his vision (that is, the reincarnation of souls) and hints not at constancy, but rather the capacity for change – and, more specifically, self-improvement – over time.
This particular straw is floated in a voiceover by Tom Hanks as complicit stooge turned good-man-doing-something Isaac Sachs, just short of the ninety minute mark (when unforewarned and still baffled viewers might be expecting the film to wrap up), and would seem at first to give some significance to the fact that each actor in Cloud Atlas plays multiple roles, thus linking the characters across scenarios that otherwise would remain only tenuously related. Admittedly, there lies as well a prejudice motif swathed unrefined, perhaps unavoidable, right there on the surface; but the deeper, underlying theme remains personal integrity – the sanctity of the right-minded individual in standing against history’s dark wash – and it is here that Cloud Atlas is served poorly by its unremitting emphasis on presenting familiar faces: in the two UK segments the incongruity of recurrence merely highlights those stories’ irrelevance – though functioning well enough both as vignettes and within Mitchell’s take on humanity, these nevertheless constitute one third of the film’s screen time while adding nothing to the primary, soul-searching character arc featuring Tom Hanks’s and Halle Berry’s various incarnations. Indeed, with Hanks representing the only “soul” to undergo any development significant enough to span the entirety of the film (Berry remains constant, as does a resurgent Hugh Grant; well, mostly), when all is said, done and unravelled, the actors’ bi-, tri-, quad-, quint-, and sext-faceted incarnations, much though these may have proved gratifying from their own, professional standpoint, serve little purpose as a storytelling device, and so come across more as an overdone piece of faux-cleverness, or a poorly disguised attempt to keep the $100 million budget from growing any fatter and splitting off into separate organisms.
Notwithstanding their effect on the film as a whole, the actor/character dynamics are well played, with each of the leads giving strong performances, particularly within his or her primary story (even if a back-to-nature Hanks perforce calls to mind his role in Cast Away, thereby evoking aural flashbacks to poor old Wilson). It is a credit to Tywker and the Wachowskis that they have in any way melded together the six, quite disparate tales of Mitchell’s book; yet, while none of these are altogether lacking in merit when considered, uneviscerated, as single entities (contextual relevance aside, SF junkies undoubtedly will take close interest in dystopian new Seoul, with its clone-fuelled economy and dark futurism rising stark and unrepentant over the protruding tips of its mostly submerged predecessor), nevertheless it seems fair to conclude that the film treatment of Cloud Atlas has lost something in the mix, the inevitable jigsaw puzzle intrigue gradually giving way to dissatisfaction as the whole, in this distended case, proves to be in no discernible way greater than the sum of its parts. Granted, where the narrative causality of the links is flimsy – verging, some would argue, on puff-of-smoke illusory – at least some bond has been provided courtesy of a clever score by Tykwer and his long-time collaborators Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; but for all that Tykwer and the Wachowskis should be applauded for the scope and audacity of their interpretation (they wrote as well as directed), nonetheless they should carry censure, also, for not committing more fully to that (admittedly hard-to-define) underpinning rationale by which their work clings to yet remains separate from Mitchell’s.
Upon release, Magnolia quickly found its niche as a film to be well-(though not always fondly-)regarded; and while Lana and Andy Wachowski have suggested – perhaps rightly, in many cases – that any maligning of Cloud Atlas need evidence nothing more than an ad hoc dismissiveness of those rare cinematic offerings that present viewers neither with an easy understanding nor the usual dose of formulaic expectations and click-of-the-fingers gratification, still this shapes as a dodge; by sacrificing clarity (of purpose, not just content) for complexity (no matter how artfully achieved), what they and Tykwer have demonstrated, ultimately, is not the shortcomings of appreciation by which everyday cinemagoers and professional critics are drawn together, but rather the subtle yet striking difference that exists still between a bona fide masterpiece and the mere grandiosity of a magnum opus.—Jacob Edwards
1. Puig, Claudia, “Dangerous Ground is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Turf”, USA Today (January 7, 2000) [cited in the Wikipedia entry for Magnolia (film)]
2. Mitchell, David, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 “Bookclub” (June 2007) [cited in the Wikipedia entry for Cloud Atlas (novel)]
3. Robinson, Tasha, “The Wachowskis explain how Cloud Atlas unplugs people from the Matrix”, A.V. Club (October 25, 2012) [http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-wachowskis-explain-how-cloud-atlas-unplugs-peo,87900/]