As adaptations of unfilmable novels go Cloud Atlas is pretty damn spectacular. The book, by David Mitchell (no, not that one), is comprised of six novella-length stories that are deliberately wildly contrasting, not just in their settings and characters but in the style that they’re written in – Mitchell manages however to sustain a convincing voice and an involving plotline for each one and also weaves in some ingenious devices to link them all together. The first story is historical and is told via the journal of a philanthropic but naive American gentlemen who falls ill while on an exploration of Pacific islands in 1849, and from there every successive section is set further on in time (in 1932, 1975, present day and a credible near future) until we reach a post-apocalyptic and perilous wilderness, described in an invented dialect that brings to mind that of the narrator of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. The author’s most striking innovation is to cut every story in half, leaving each on an abrupt cliffhanger before starting the next, with the action not to be resolved until we’ve worked up through every scenario and back down again. This demands a certain amount of forbearance from the reader (particularly in regard to our nineteenth century explorer, whose predicament is left dangling for several hundred pages) but does add to the propulsive quality of the book, as one’s constantly anxious to find out what happened next.
You’d think that the visual and stylistic clashes that would be inevitably thrown up by any attempt to render it all on screen would make a film unwatchable but directors Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski and Andy Wachowski have found a way through, which succeeds in tying the strands together by jettisoning a lot of Mitchell’s careful structuring and instead emphasising at every opportunity the connections between the different segments, to the extent of deploying the same cast multiple times across the stories. A more faithful approach might have been to make six short films and present them in order, and one might even have gone to the extreme of making the first one silent, the second black and white, the third on a simulation of yellowing film stock and so on up to 3D and surround sound for the last but practically that wouldn’t ever be a goer, whereas the decision to smooth out the differences does end up working really well, even if at times it feels like the directors are terrified at the prospect of the audience losing interest through having to watch the same strand for too long. The film jumps freely back and forth from one time period to another, exploiting as many chances to match similar situations and actions in different segments as it possibly can, and heaping on chases and mortal peril and thrilling escapes and even the odd brawl in a pub in its mission to keep us watching. This slightly nervy editing isn’t really necessary: every one of the six scenarios could stand fleshing out into a satisfying full-length film of its own, and these films would include an edgy conspiracy thriller centred around a San Francisco nuclear plant, a broad slapstick comedy set in old people’s home and a brilliantly well-realised Bladerunner-ish sci-fi dystopia about the abuse of clones that in itself is a far better use of the Wachowskis’ talents that those awful Matrix films. All the way through it’s vivid, colourful and engaging and occasionally things happen that are truly unexpected.
The three hours of the film fly past, and I haven’t even mentioned the sheer ludicrous majesty of some of the extreme make-ups, prosthetics and hair-pieces that are used to make the various incarnations of Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw distinct from each other, with Hugh Grant’s fearsome cannibal overlord particularly eyebrow-raising. There is of course the question about what it all signifies, and there, beyond some vague feelgood stuff about the value of connections and the importance of freedom and truth it feels a bit, well, cloudy, although I did feel definitely uplifted by the end. In some ways Cloud Atlas reminds me quite a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Magnolia in the way it communicates something positive about the human spirit by showing us people overcoming various setbacks, although it doesn’t have anything like the resonance, invention or weirdly life-enhancing discomfort of that film. It’s amazing it got made at all, let alone that it works this well, and I just hope the folks who put together the wigs won a few awards for their trouble.