There’s no way any one film adaptation of Cloud Atlas could do near enough justice to the novel, there’s far too greater a story to cram in it. This is one epic tale that genuinely needed two or three instalments to explore the best of David Mitchell’s complex interlinking narratives, unlike some film sequels that are produced as pure cash cows. But this 2 hour 52 minute epic just doesn’t deliver. Not completely anyway. Visually it’s stunning; taking you across time between the stories of an ocean voyage in 1849, an English composer in 1936, a small-time journalist on the trail of a murderer in 1975, an elderly man held in a Scottish nursing home in 2012, a growing rebellion in a very futuristic 2144 Korea, to the very far off future of a post-apocalyptic Hawaii in 2321. Each story is so different visually, and the characters so diverse. David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas created not one but six very different worlds, all rich, colourful and beautifully detailed and it’s this that Directors Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski bring to life so brilliantly. It is, as cliché as I know I’ll sound, a ‘visual feast’. There’s a huge amount to take in; and perhaps a little too much to really digest or fully understand.
There are six stories altogether, all of which could fill their own feature-length film, and all would cater to a completely different audience. Perhaps it’s for this reason, having so many styles and narratives going on in one piece that it’s ended up a box office flop. I mean how do you sell or market a film with so much going on, that could target practically every audience, to people who aren’t already familiar with it? Where would you begin? I don’t think people realise what it is they’re going to see. It’s a shame because so much great storytelling has gone to waste. To fit so much into one film even at its epic running time is an impossible task. Like every film adaptation from a novel there are characters and plot points left out and they always disappoint because of that, in most cases anyway. Cloud Atlas left out some of my favourite characters and their great relationships. For those who have read the book will know of the relationship between Robert Frobisher, (the composer in 1936) and Vyvyan Ayrs’ daughter, but for those who only see the film will never hear of it. For me that is one of the most interesting parts of Frobisher’s story but it’s completely erased from the films narrative. As a result it went from being one of my favourite parts to one of the less exciting.
However the stories I loved most in the novel, Adam Ewing’s voyage in 1849, and Somni 451 in Korea, 2144 remain my favourites in the film. If any of the six stories where to have their own films I’d want it to be these. And this is where it gets confusing……. These two stories, though separate narratives set hundreds of years apart are actually linked. The central characters in one are the same in the other, reincarnated. And this is what links many of the stories, that, and they are played by the same actors. Once you can grasp that and follow these characters through each story, some actors cross gender and race, and some are actually pretty hard to spot, then being able to loosely follow it shouldn’t be impossible. I say ‘ shouldn’t’. In reality the idea of reincarnation isn’t one you’ll automatically jump to, it’s so subtly done. Perhaps if people knew this before watching it they’d have a much less confusing journey, but if you have a spare three hours from your life to give…again, then a second watch would probably be more rewarding. Cloud Atlas hinges heavily on the performances and sadly some actors don’t deliver. Surprisingly the biggest disappointments are the most well-known and usually incredible Halle Berry (pretend for a second that she never made Cat Woman) and Tom Hanks. Their performances are hit and miss, nothing amazing or stand-out, and honestly the best I can say of their characters is ‘meh’. I will say Tom Hanks can neither do a Scottish nor Irish accent. The memorable performances for me are from the lesser familiar but seriously talented Jim Sturgess (Adam Ewing, Hae-Joo Chang), Doona Bae (Tilda, Sonmi 451), Ben Whishaw (Robert Frobisher), and James D’Arcy (Young/Old Rufus Sixsmith, Archivist), each of whom I fell in love with. But perhaps I’m biased as three from those four are in my favourite stories.
The film has its good points; several great performances, visually stunning, imaginative masterful world building, intriguing unique narrative (once you understand it). And it has its bad points; running time, a few poor performances, majorly confusing.
To anyone who plans to see the film and hasn’t read the book I would strongly advice you read it first and give yourself a fighting chance. I do believe it’s worth watching but it’s no popcorn flick and full attention is needed. It’s got a little of everything in it; action, intelligent story, light comedy, suspense, and romance, and will appeal to a wide audience, except those with a short attention span. It’s definitely a commitment. And with a few hours spare and nothing to do then why not?