The Earthly Disappointments of 'Cloud Atlas'

Six story lines and a host of bizarre character transformations add up to a hokey, unfaithful, and yet surprisingly watchable adaptation of David Mitchell's novel.

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"Composing is a crusade. Sometimes you slay the dragon. Sometime it slays you." So explains one of the (many) principal characters in the movie Cloud Atlas, adapted from David Mitchell's book by directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. But the line might easily have served as a warning to the filmmakers themselves. For Mitchell's sprawling, serpentine novel is one helluva dragon and, as such, posed a crusade they were almost certain to lose.

The book, published in 2004 and inspired by Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night A Traveller, consists of a series of six novella-length narratives, each nested within the next: the diary of a 19th-century maritime traveler; letters written in the 1930s by a composer's young amanuensis to his lover; a journalistic potboiler set in 1970s San Francisco; a contemporary farce about a vanity-press publisher imprisoned in a nursing home; an interview with a clone-slave in dystopian, 22th-century "Neo-Seoul"; and, further still into the future, a post-apocalyptic oral history of humanity's reversion to primitivism. These chapters are each told—or rather, half-told—in chronological sequence up to the midpoint of the book, after which the narrative pivots and concludes them in reverse order.

Cloud Atlas is not, in short, a novel that easily lends itself to cinematic adaptation. Among its many pleasures is the ease with which Mitchell slips from one authorial voice to the next, channeling Melville here and Huxley there, Evelyn Waugh and James Ellroy and Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis, however, chop Mitchell's half-dozen stories into vastly thinner slices, ranging from perhaps 10 minutes apiece to mere seconds, and then splice them all together. And while this keeps the disparate tales moving along, it also homogenizes them. No individual voice has time to take hold—and, indeed, if any did, it would likely cause whiplash at the movie's next narrative lurch. Further undermining the impact of each story is the compression and simplification required to squeeze Mitchell's work from miniseries length (now that would have been an idea) into the confines of a feature film, even one that clocks in at an ample 165 minutes.

But if some of the challenges that faced Tykwer (best known for Run Lola Run) and the Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) may have been inevitable, others are of their own making. There is, for instance, the exceptionally uneven cast, whose performances run the range from understated (Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy) to hammy (Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant) to listless (Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon) to cringe-inducing (Tom Hanks). Still more problematic is the decision to make each of these actors reappear in different roles throughout the various stories, frequently age-, race-, or gender-swapping under topographic layers of makeup and prostheses. Over the course of the film we are treated to Berry, Weaving, and Whishaw portraying white women; Hanks, Grant, and D'Arcy portraying old men; and virtually every member of the cast portraying someone Korean. And don't even get me started on the accents: Hanks alone is tasked with playing multiple Scotsmen. (Somewhere out there, Mike Myers is firing his agent.)

The evident purpose of these many metamorphoses is to underline the moral that, as one character notes, "All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended." This unity of human experience is a point implicit in Mitchell's novel, which at its outer chronological edges traces an elliptical path from past cannibalism to future cannibalism and, within that, from past to future slavery. But it is a point that Tykwer and the Wachowskis, who also collaborated on the script, seem intent to make batteringly conspicuous, with each story gradually sorting itself out into a contest between decent, broad-minded egalitarians and sadistic racists, sexists, homophobes, and/or cannibals. (It's not the first time the Wachowskis have divvied the world up into enlightened rebels and their tyrannical overlords.)

This message of Why Can't We All Get Along is not the only one Cloud Atlas is peddling, however. In a more radical departure from the novel, the movie also wants to assure us that Love Is A Many Splendored Thing—an alteration that requires appending happily-ever-after codas to two of the six subplots and, worse, transforming two others from tales of narcissism and betrayal into tragic romances. The result is an eminently peculiar mismatch of substance and form, like a Hallmark card written by David Foster Wallace.

Yet despite all this—indeed, no doubt in part because of it—Cloud Atlas is an eminently watchable film, and one possessed of a certain hokey grandeur. Even as the movie's constant narrative hopscotching prevents any individual storyline from coming fully to life, it also prevents us from noticing overmuch. Of the flattened-out subplots presented by Tykwer and the Wachowskis, at best two could plausibly stand on their own, and one—the distant-future fable, in which Hanks and Berry banter in nearly incomprehensible pidgin English—approaches the catastrophic camp of Battlefield Earth. But the movie's heady pace and fluid editing are such that, just as we might begin to tire of one story, we find ourselves promptly deposited into another. And in this, perhaps, lies the filmmakers' genuine achievement: Cloud Atlas is an otherwise mediocre movie that knows exactly when you're ready to change the channel.