Exactly what is Cloud Atlas? That would be telling, but it’s a mystery well worth making the journey to discover. It’s certainly one of the most ambitious tales to be tackled on the big screen in recent memory; a sprawling, staggering epic that steadfastly refuses to collapse under its own weight, despite a near-three hour running time. On the contrary, it dances through its multiple plots and time periods with a lightness that belies its complexity. It’s unlikely to shift The Matrix from the top spot of most people’s favourite Wachowski films, but it’s almost certainly bound to reward multiple viewings, something you’ll be keen to do as soon as possible.
Adapted from David Mitchell’s 2004 novel by writer-directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski, the film is divided up into six stories taking place in six different times: 1849, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2144 and 2321. Briefly, the stories involve a tale of 19th century exploration; a forbidden love in 30s Britain; dirty goings on in the oil business in 70s San Francisco; a publisher on the run in present day London; revolution in futuristic Korea; and a bloody post-apocalyptic drama. Some of the characters in these stories are inspired by the actions of their predecessors in the earlier tales; one or two (Tom Hanks and Halle Berry) even suspect a connection with their past lives. The interweaving stories are all connected, albeit quite loosely; there are points of intersection, so although we’re constantly cutting from one strand to another, it’s done in a way that allows you to keep track quite easily of what’s going on, and a picture slowly emerges of what the story is trying to say.
You’d be forgiven for not warming to Cloud Atlas in its early stages. There’s a lot going on and it takes a little while to acclimatise to the sheer scale of the piece, never mind the fact that stars like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant play multiple roles across multiple time periods and have rarely looked sillier (take a bow Hugo Weaving, thoroughly enjoying himself as an evil Mrs. Doubtfire). Weirdly, Howard from TV's Last of the Summer Wine also turns up as - what else? - a daffy OAP. It feels like anything could happen, which is a delightfully refreshing sensation in itself. It helps that the cast are all on strong form (yes, even old Howard). If Hanks shines the brightest then it’s because, as good as his performances are, he also has the strongest array of characters. Even his Irish hardman routine impresses.
The bewildering range of genres on display also delights. There’s science-fiction action, historical drama, conspiracy thriller, familial relationships, comedy, religious allegory, philosophical thought-piece - they are all here. Each strand captivates in its own way. That three hour running time? Don’t worry, it flies by. The Neo Seoul episode with Jim Sturgess (looking not unlike Keanu Reeves) and Doona Bae offers plenty of Matrix-lite action in amongst Blade Runner-esque cityscapes, while the tender romance between Ben Whishaw’s young composer and Cambridge undergraduate James D'Arcy is beautifully poignant. Jim Broadbent’s publisher on the run in the present day is broadly played for laughs, though the the pay-off is slightly anti-climactic. And then there’s the Apocalypto-style drama in the distant future, with its weird, degenerate English dialogue and voodoo hallucinations. It might be easier to list elements that Cloud Atlas DOESN’T have, such is its melting pot approach.
As to what it all means, well, that’s a tricky one. It plays with the principle of causality, illustrating how one seemingly insignificant event in the past can result in extraordinary events further down the line. But the narrative goes deeper than that, suggesting that perhaps people (or souls) are fated to meet or even reunite in different bodies. How much you want to read into the story is up to you, but Cloud Atlas is at least cinematic in its attempt to adapt the ambitious source material: not only does Frank Griebe and John Toll’s cinematography look great (bar a few obviously CGI-ed backdrops), but the cutting between stories is slick and well judged, staying with each strand long enough to draw the audience in and allow the plot parallels and connections to emerge before hopping elsewhere. Cloud Atlas may not be to everyone’s taste, but it dreams big and is all the more welcome for that.