Magnificent folly, or Hindenburg-sized crash and burn? Cloud Atlas is so overloaded with ballast and baggage that it would, if we chose, be very easy indeed to scupper.
The film has a lot of strikes against it before we even settle into our seats and the lights dim. Based on a famously unfilmable novel, directed by two maverick film-makers who haven't had a proper hit since the movie that put their names on the map, Cloud Atlas has struggled with financing and distribution from the very beginning. At three hours long, with an interweaving plot based around six different storylines that stretch from the 1840s to the far, uncharted future, it's hardly a popcorn movie.
Warner Bros. have handled a movie like this before. Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain ties into many of the same themes and untethered structure of Cloud Atlas. A cosmic, trippy exploration on the nature of eternal love and connection through past and future lives, it very nearly scuppered Aronofsky's career, and is considered by most commentators to be a flop. Warners think they have another Fountain on their hands, and are doing their utmost to control the damage.
So it is that, five months after the US release, my local cinema is showing the film twice daily, in afternoon screenings, in the second-smallest room in the house. It's a perfunctory scheduling at best, and I thought seriously about seeing something else. A three-hour investment of time is not taken lightly when early reviews have swung between tearing the film to shreds and wetting the hem of its robe with convert's tears. It's a love/hate prospect. There are no three-star reviews for Cloud Atlas.
But then, I'm one of the baker's dozen of people that loved The Fountain. I'm drawn to films that dare to ask the big questions, to strive to be more than just a genre exercise or a diversion on a quiet afternoon. I'm attracted to that danger, to the chance to either see something transcendent, or a massive yet gleeful failure.
Cloud Atlas doesn't ease you in. Within the first five minutes, you've skipped across centuries and continents, from a sunlit beach in the Pacific to an interrogation in 23rd century Seoul. It's confident but breakneck film-making, cheeky enough to reassure you that things will slow down a bit, that things will start to mesh, to make sense. For now, as we're introduced to the characters and plots, it's best to settle in and enjoy the ride.
A lot of reviews, taking hints from the Wachowski's SF pedigree, have tagged the film as a futuristic drama. Not true. Only two of the six strands that weave through the film are set in the years ahead. For me, these are the most successful, and in some ways the most closely linked. They tell a story of two worlds, a Mega-City One type urban dystopia, and a far future post-collapse island civilisation. Both are linked by Somni-451, an artificial human slave whose role as a messiah becomes apparant as we drift through the movie. As an SF buff, of course these two stories resonate most strongly for me, and they play to the Wachowski's strengths as masters of visual wizardry. Their Neo-Seoul is a remarkable place, at first glance a dizzying landscape of Speed Racer neon and glistening towers. But we see, as time moves on, that the clean surfaces are only a holographic mask over a city and a society that is rusted and fatally corrupted. We realise that The Fall talked about by the islanders is the collapse of Somni's world. It's mesmerising stuff, and there's nearly a stand-alone film in these two sequences alone.
Elsewhen, we flit between the 19th, 20th and 21st century, following a scientist on his way back to San Francisco after a trip to the Pacific, a composer struggling with the creation of a great new work, a reporter chasing down a tale of corruption in the nuclear industry, and a publisher who finds himself stuck in the loony bin by his scheming brother. Of the four, there's a definite candidate for excision. The modern-day story, starring Jim Broadbent as bumbling fall guy Timothy Cavendish, is broad slapstick comedy that clashes viciously with the slightly dour tone of the rest of the film. If it's meant as light relief, it fails. It's painful stuff, and connecting it to the rest of the stories is something of a push. The one moment that works is a throwaway line–as Tim tries to escape from the clutches of the evil Nurse Noakes, he quotes a line from the chilling SF classic Soylent Green. In Somni's time, we understand where that random phrase came from, and its awful relevance to her future.
The figure of Nurse Noakes brings me to the two big problems I had with Cloud Atlas. The Wachowski's insistence on pushing the theme of interconnectedness led them to cast the same actors in multiple roles. This meant a heavy use of prosthetics, with varying degrees of success. For the most part, it's a jar to see Halle Berry and Doona Bae in whiteface, and Ben Whishaw and Hugo Weaving in drag. OK, you're cutting down on your cast bill, but at the cost of a certain amount of believability.
Poor Hugo Weaving gets the heavy end of the make-up brush. As the villain (or at least antagonist) in each piece, he's supposed to be a threatening presence. This works best in the 1970s set thriller, where he plays a convincing hitman. This is, of course, the one time where you can see him as he is. In Somni's world, the makeup gives him the look of a Vulcan with a squint. In the Cavendish story, he looks like a prop-forward in a dress. It's another example of the complete failure of the modern-day sequence, which also features a memoraby awful performance from Tom Hanks as a (I want to say Irish, but I genuinely can't tell with the accent he uses) gangster turned author.
Interconnected as it is, the Cavendish story seems less loosely attached to the rest of the film, which is a relief. It means I don't have to judge the whole on the problems inherent in one weak strand. The thing is, Cloud Atlas is a much cleverer, much more carefully constructed film than you might think. The stories twist and twine against each oter in surprising and unexpected ways, a revelation from one tale echoing into another. “Stories” is an important word here. There are hints that Halle Berry's 70's thriller is just that, a submission for Cavendish's publishing imprint. Ben Whishaw's composer is captivated by the tale of Jim Burgess' poisoned scientist, which he reads in a journal he comes across by accident. Most importantly, Somni's story becomes the framework for the islander's religion–a story that is, in a way sparked by a dodgy film version of Cavendish's biography. Stories have meaning beyond the printed page. Words have the power to change things hundreds of years after they were written.
I found David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas to be bloated, annoyingly structured, trite when it tried to be profound, stating the obvious when it tried to be wise. These are accusations that I cannot level at the take that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have put together. By abandoning Mitchell's nested structure they've come up with a film that's never dull, that allows the interwoven nature of the stories and characters they present to chime like a string of bells. Individually, they're pretty. Together, the music is something entirely new. There's much that's clunky, a lot that's a bit preachy. But it's also pacy and, once you settle into the stories, highly accessible. Cloud Atlas is a bold, brave leap into the unknown, an adventurous experiment in technique and non-linear storytelling that deserves a lot more than the lacklustre promotion it's been getting from Warners.
Sadly, it's already been decided that Cloud Atlas is going to be a flop, like John Carter last year. If you want to see it at the cinema (and it is a cinematic experience, even in a basement screen with a faulty projector) you should get a move on. It won't be there for long.
See it, and tell the stories, and let them echo up and down the years.
(amended – earlier versions of this article spelt Tom Tykwer's name wrong. Thanks To Leading Man Clive for spotting the snafu).