Cloud Atlas, the book, is brilliant. Cloud Atlas, the film, is insane. And brilliant. Possibly displaying a brilliance beyond that of the book. I don’t really have any concept of where to start in talking about this film, there’s so much going on. OK, let’s start with the book.
The book has a Russian Dolls formula, with one story nesting inside another, which nests inside another. All told, there are 6 stories, all of which interconnect with the others somehow. Each of these stories occurs in a different time period, starting back in the 1850s, with the final story taking place several hundred years in the future. Each story is completely different from the one which went before, both in content and in style, and yet the combinations work.
The film follows a similar pattern, except that instead of using the Russian Dolls principal of cutting each story in half and placing them inside one another, it chops each story up into little pieces and fits them together like a jigsaw. The idea is that there are echoes in theme and/or content from one piece to another, even if their stories are completely different. It’s an approach that could be reckless, that could provoke ridicule (and in some quarters it has), but for me it was perfectly executed.
The film clocks in at 2 hours 47 minutes and, given that one of my biggest complaints about film in the last 5-10 years has been the tendency for films to outstay their welcome (in most cases a film need only be between 90 and 100 minutes long), this was always a risky gambit. However, the time sailed by. There was so much to take in, the stories were all exciting or engaging in one way or another and the pain of leaving one was matched by the joy of rejoining another.
I realise I’ve not told you much about the film but that’s really because there’s too much to say and it’s probably best that you go in and don’t know too much. Just know that it is bonkers and brilliant. Any film that can cast Tom Hanks as a demented homicidal doctor, a hotel owner, nuclear scientist, Irish psychopath mobster, and timid future-tribesman has something going for it, and that kind of casting is reflected throughout the film, with the majority of the main cast popping up in parts small and large throughout. There’s some wacky prosthesis used at points, but it’s all part of the character and soul of the movie.
Yes soul. And that’s really what the whole film boils down to. In the background of the film, as there is in the book, is a motif about souls through the ages, resonances that come time and again, kindred spirits destined to play a part in one another’s lives, and while that’s not important in giving the film itself an emotional resonance, it is indicative of the heart and soul that the film has. It is a labour of love. A film that the Wachowski’s allegedly spent upwards of $10m of their own money on. It is utterly mad in a way that films are rarely allowed to be these days. It is $100m of film that, for me, is worth a billion.
Cloud Atlas has struggled at the box office, and that’s a shame, because this is the kind of film that really deserves to be rewarded. And I would be happy to bet that in 10 or 15 years time, it will be a film that is looked back on as a cult classic. It is unbelievable now how Bladerunner could ever have been seen as anything other than brilliant and that is how we will see Cloud Atlas.