I tore through Cloud Atlas this past week in preparation for seeing the film, and I want to dedicate this entire introduction to motivating people to read the book before seeing the movie. Cloud Atlas is big and complicated both in book form and film form, but the movie doesn't have the luxury of 500 plus pages to explain (or not explain) itself. As such it is watching the film is far more enjoyable if you read the book and treat the film as a compliment to it and not a separate entity.
This is slightly odd since the film is drastically different from the book. It's those difference, however, that make the movie so interesting. Not in terms of plot, though there is plenty of that, but in terms of structure, ideas and philosophy. The Wachowski siblings and co-director Tom Tykwer adapted a book that is as much about writing as it is a meditative study on humanity into a movie as much about film making as it is about its own themes. The book is so about words and narrative structure and writing that there's no way they could have done it as a movie. Instead they made a movie that is about visual structure, montage and film making.
They adapted the story for the medium instead of the medium for the story, and it's a beautiful thing to see.
On the surface Cloud Atlas is six different stories that take place in the past present and future. They are at first glance connected only by the characters in each learning through some means (movie, journal, book, myth) about the characters in the past. The six stories in the book are presented in chronological order with the first half of each story told first and then in reverse chronological order for the last half story (1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1). The movie eschews this set up as it would never work and instead interweaves the six stories into one giant study on life, love and the human condition. The six stories are big enough in scope to each be a film on their own, but that would negate the beauty of how they work together and have left us without the sheer awe of how incredibly well the Wachowskis and Tykwer have weaved them all together.
Plot wise the stories are as varied as can be: A period pieces aboard a ship in the 1800s about Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) returning home aboard a ship; a pre-WWII British drama involving an eccentric composer and his new muse; a hard nosed 70s detective story with a minority hero in the form of Luisa Rey (Halle Berry); a modern day comedy about a group of elderly escaping from their old folks home; a ystopian science fiction action story in Neo Seoul; a post-apocalyptic love tale replete with a new language. As you can tell there's a lot of genres going on here that one usually doesn't see colliding into another in stark contrast. The film's ability to gorgeously combine a Downtown Abbey-style drama with a futuristic action sequence is unprecedented and thoroughly stunning. Somehow the film makers manage to cut from a sailing ship in the 1800s to an old man racing a Range Rover out of a retirement home in the blink of an eye, but still have it make sense, and even more importantly have the stories actually join together to create a larger meaning for the entire film.
This is obviously a massively ambitious project that demands that the film keeps six almost completely different stories flowing seamlessly together while interconnecting them through the film's themes. While the movie drastically plays up the reincarnation idea that is really only hinted at in the book by having each actor play other parts in the other stories it does this because it has too. A film this big must be in your face about some things, but sadly at times it can get a bit too heavy handed and that's when things can fall apart. For the most part the Wachowskis direction weaves multiple stories and genres into an incredible film that flows amazingly easily from one story to the next. College students will be introduced to montage using this film instead of Battleship Potemkin in the future it's that impressive. It often miraculously stitches scenes together in order to create an idea out of disconnected stories. It's just that sometimes the ideas get too big for the film and the story loses its way. Unfortunately when you're telling six separate stories at once (though really no more than three or four are told at a time) losing the audience means you have to work six times as hard to get them back.
As a side note relating to my introduction, in situations where things start getting off track having read the book is incredibly helpful.
Also helpful is going into the film ready to pay attention. This isn't a movie where you're going to sit down and tune out. If the thoughts, ideas, themes and philosophical meanderings of the film don't make you think then the sheer artistic structure of it will. Head into the theater ready to focus and you'll come out a much happier viewer.
Of course there will be stories you like more than others. The action packed science fiction story featuring cloned humans and a hover bike in Neo Seoul is enthralling Patrick Ewings tale of being swindled at sea is a bit duller -- though it does have one of Hank's better roles. The trick that the film pulls off is making the dull parts connect with the overall themes wonderfully. Every story builds upon the themes of overcoming oppression, the human spirit and just how interconnected the universe truly is. When the film works best you can see the intricacies behind it and a seventh complete story, much bigger than the individual ones and far more thought provoking, reveals itself.
The actors, aided often by heavy make up, are a mixed bag though never terrible. Tom "I'll Get Another Oscar Nod For This" Hanks is easily the best out of everyone and delivers performances from hilarious (a British gangster) to poignant (a future native dealing with some seriously devilish visions). Halle Berry on the other hand I could take or leave and the casting of Hugo Weaving in nothing but villainous roles make is a bit predictable except when he shows up in drag as a wicked Nurse a la One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Jim Broadbent on the other hand is wonderful in all his roles and easily gets to have the most fun while playing Timothy Cavendish in the film's most comedic story. It is impressive as well that despite sitting through the movie trying to pick out who is who when the credits rolled at the end and they showed everyone's roles I was amazed by some of the make up jobs in the film.
The screenplay is a bit less impressive. While the film weaves in and out of stories like a graceful sparrow the screenplay often relies a bit too heavily on passages from the book. While the plots are overall the same as the book's they do vary strongly except for when it comes to key dialog. The dialog is often lifted directly from the book, and sometimes things that work wonderfully in print just weren't made to be read out loud by an actor. Passages I found insightful while reading them came across as cheesy on screen and elicited a few eye roles. It's odd that the film makers were smart enough to realize that they needed to structure the film to focus on what film does well, but still relied so heavily on the words from the book. A bit of rewriting here and there could have saved some of the passages, and since they'd already reworked a ton of the stories it shouldn't have been that big a deal. With that said the film deals with simply massive questions and ideas, and sometimes addressing things like that is sounds cheesy and there's no way around it.
Cloud Atlas is a movie you have to see, kind of like Citizen Kane, for what it does as a film. Much like some people don't like Kane as a story you may not connect as dramatically as I did with this film, but you must see it because of what it does as a film. It is one of the most beautifully shot, brilliantly edited, sumptuously directed, ambitious films you will ever see. For the most part that ambition pays off in spades, but sometimes it reaches too far and you can see it unravel. Thankfully it never unravels enough to not enjoy the show and invalidate the prolific accomplishments of the film.