Directors: The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer
Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant
Running Time: 172 minutes
Release Date: February 22
Cloud Atlas is apparently an unfilmable novel. It’s a phrase bandied around a lot these days; Life Of Pi is an unfilmable novel, Naked Lunch is an unfilmable novel and Watchmen is an unfilmable novel. They all, of course have all proved to be perfectly filmable—the hyperbole surrounding these texts only adds to the alluring challenge of shooting them. A weighty tome spanning six different timelines, David Mitchell’s 2006 novel Cloud Atlas, has also now been proved to be perfectly filmable. It’s also pretty bad.
Just how bad? The Fountain, a similarly ambitious project spanning three timelines and directed by Darren Aronofsky, was beautifully shot, masterfully scored by Clint Mansell and Mogwai, and featured career best performances from Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. It was also a tremendous mess; a lofty attempt to straddle metaphysical with religious iconography. Cloud Atlas runs twice the length of The Fountain, spanning six separate timelines was directed by three people—two of whom are responsible for The Matrix sequels and Speed Racer. You get the idea.
What the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have attempted in adapting Mitchell’s magnum opus is admirable. It’s a project that is clearly a labour of love—they first became aware of the book when Natalie Portman gave them a copy during V for Vendetta—that even saw them throwing their own money in the budget kitty in what has become one of the most expensive independent productions ever.
Where they’ve failed most is in attempting to transfer literary techniques onto celluloid. They look to highlight the interconnectivity of the stories with each actor playing multiple roles, usually under egregiously questionable prosthetics and with hilarious accents—looking at you, inner city Dublin Tom Hanks—yet this technique seems tremendously forced and unnecessary. The cast has clearly enjoyed playing dress up—none more so than Hugo Weaving who plays musical costumes as a ruthless, calculated assassin, Nurse Ratched in drag and a hallucination of Tom Hanks’ Zachry who looks like a creation from The Mighty Boosh. The continuous character switcheroos, however, while fun at first, playing “Guess Who?“ eventually pulls you out of the moment with people tackling roles regardless of race, age or sex.
Some stories fare better than others with the Wachowskis’ helmed segments probably the weaker; their 1849 tale set on a ship in the South Pacific Ocean is a particular drag while stories set in 2144 Neo Seoul and the post-apocalyptic Big Isle of Hawaii in 2321 are not far behind it. Tykwer has more success with his installments; Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy and Jim Broadbent give solid performances in their tale of lost loves and manipulative meddlers in 1930s Cambridge; Halle Berry uncovers big business conspiracy in a zippy thriller set in ’70s San Francisco and Broadbent again shines in a modern day farce that plays out like Carry On Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
It’s hard not to respect what this troika of directors have done yet if anything, maybe filmmakers in the future will pay heed to the failures of Andy, Lana and Tom: the term unfilmable is a caveat, not a gauntlet thrown down.