An accomplishment of adaptation every bit as impressive as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings or Zack Snyder’s criminally underappreciated Watchmen, Cloud Atlas is a big, bold, beautiful work of staggering ambition and artistry. Directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and Lana & Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) from a novel by David Mitchell, this cinematic tapestry spans centuries, continents and almost every conceivable genre, achieving along the way both an awe-inspiring grandeur and a remarkable intimacy while examining everlasting themes including love, loyalty, death, rebirth, intolerance, courage and sacrifice. That this film exists at all is impressive enough; that it is this spectacular is nothing short of a miracle.
At the beginning of Cloud Atlas, one of its many protagonists, a publisher, expresses disdain for flashbacks and flash-forwards in literature, but begs us to indulge him all the same. With this wry caveat out of the way, Tykwer and the Wachowkis launch into a multi-generational, globe-encompassing cinematic omnibus that weaves viewers in and out of six different storylines, from the Pacific Islands of the mid 1800s to the garish glow of “Neo-Seoul” circa 2144, stopping by in between on Scotland of the 1930s, California of the 1970s and England of the present era, before returning to the Pacific for a second time and a grim post-apocalyptic Hawaii.
The stories are linked on a literary level, with each tale recounted within the one that follows it chronologically (so a sailor’s journal is read by a composer whose music is heard by a reporter, whose pursuit of a story is turned into a pulpy mystery novel and so on). But it is the recurrence of a comet shaped birthmark that reveals the true connection, one that suggests the journey of a single soul across the limitless expanses of time.
It’s a connective notion that’s further implied by the bold decision to have each member of the ensemble cast – which includes Tom Hanks (Angels & Demons), Halle Berry (X-Men), Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter) and Hugo Weaving (V For Vendetta) – play multiple characters across the timelines, often changing age, race and gender in order to do so. The casts’ work is excellent bar none, although quite frankly, so unrecognisable does the makeup sometimes render them that the end credit revelation as to who played who in what segment is as jaw-dropping as the actual performances.
But despite the sprawling cast, multitude of plotlines and three individual directors, Cloud Atlas unfolds with remarkable cohesion and balance. Some tales are purely dramatic while others are punctuated with comedy; some, like the exploits of the militant freedom fighters in futuristic Korea, hold gargantuan stakes, while others are as light-weight and incidental as four elderly troublemakers hatching a scheme to escape from their nursing home. Astoundingly, out of the six stories of vastly different scale and tone, not one feels unnecessary or boring.
Indeed, masterful editing – along with a beautiful score that’s as multifaceted as the movie it’s accompanying – provides the film with a wonderful ebb and flow. The intercutting between sections heightens tension while also shining a spotlight on the film’s recurring ideas – the old folks’ quest for freedom mirrors that of a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) some one hundred and fifty years prior, while a journalist’s determination to uncover a shady corporate cover-up in the seventies seems to repeat itself countless centuries in the future, when another character played by the same actress searches for answers of a more spiritual inclination.
Yet no matter the profundity, the best thing about Cloud Atlas is that it always maintains a sense of intimacy. Even in the more epic story threads such as the Wachowski directed Neo Seoul segment – loaded with awesome action and one of the coolest visions of the future ever put to film – there is a focus on feeling; on the emotional connections between each character. In this way the directors keep you tethered, even in the face of overwhelming ideas and sensations.
To try and write conclusively on Cloud Atlas after just one viewing feels like something of a fruitless endeavour. This is an important film; a film that will deservedly be watched, rewatched, discussed and studied for many generations to come. It is stained glass cinema: shards of disparate splendour made breathtakingly whole.