You have to hand it to the Wachowskis, they have some balls. After the monumental flop of Speed Racer, they decide to take a huge gamble on adapting the much-loved book, Cloud Atlas. While it has divided opinions on a universal level, the scale of its production and intricate interweaving narratives make this the most ambitious movie of 2012. The scope was so big that Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) had co-directing duties, and it involved most of the principal cast to change character, location and even race across multiple varying storylines.
The six stories are spread out across time, showing how the actions of the people involved reverberate across the universe through different generations. In chronological order, the first centres on a 19th century lawyer, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), who writes a journal about his experiences helping a stowaway slave on a boat across the Pacific. The next is about a young composer, Robert Forbisher (Ben Whishaw), in the 1930s and his relationship with his aging employer Vyvan Ayrs and his lover Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) that leads him to composing the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’.
In the 1970’s journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) tries to uncover a nuclear power scandal in San Francisco, followed by the present day shenanigans of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) plotting an escape from a retirement home. The last two are future set tales: the trial of Sonmi-451 (Donna Bae), a clone who attempts to start a revolution to show other clones they can be more than just slaves. Finally, in a technology-free post-apocalyptic Hawaii, Zachry (Tom Hanks) is relaying a story of his survival against a blood-thirsty tribe, led by a totally unrecognisable Hugh Grant.
At almost three hours long, this has to grab your attention from the go, and luckily it does. If you want to watch a film where you can switch your mind off, this is not for you. You have to be fully aware otherwise you will get lost amongst the jumping plot threads. In some ways it is very similar to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, yet this varies the interest in having the ensemble cast play different characters, and with far less pretentiousness.
And this is where the strength of the film lies. The range of characters that each actor plays peaks the interest in knowing why they are in that role and its significance as a whole. Why transform Hugh Grant and feature James D’Arcy as a Korean? Why is Jim Broadbent evil in one scene and Benny Hill-like in another? Exploring these concepts show that Cloud Atlas wants to reach out and connect us as one soul, one race, one universe.
On a technical point of view, yes, seeing Jim Sturgess as Korean is odd and needs getting used to, just like Tom Hanks’s Irish accent, but overall it’s one which is intriguing in its execution. All the controversy that surrounds this and the complaints of ‘yellow-facing’ the actors is unfounded as it is clear that they needed to use the same actors for these parts. No-one has complained about the opposite: why is Keith David Korean? And Donna Bae white? You would like to think the world has moved on from the days of Kung Fu with David Carradine, so we should applaud the attempt of creating something different rather than jump on the political-correctness bandwagon.
There are flaws, however. While each storyline has its own hook and the editing is done just right to leave you wanting more after each one, the present day involving Jim Broadbent’s character does feel slightly out of place because of its rather slapstick and comical nature. Although enjoyable in itself, the transfer of this to the next plot could have been done more seamlessly. Ironically, some of the special effect scenes set in the future are a bit ropey, with the Wachowskis obviously having difficulties letting go of Speed Racer.
Everyone involved knew this wasn’t going to be an easy film to make. Mixing the sci-fi genre with a crime-thriller, romance, comedy and drama is a difficult thing to balance, but it works. Give Cloud Atlas a chance and you will be rewarded with a touching, gripping and daring piece of filmmaking. Arguably it will leave you wanting to watch the three hours again to see how the stories linked or if you missed anything. However, one thing is in no doubt: Hugo Weaving makes one hell of an ugly woman and Korean.