Cloud Atlas is a very big movie, a sprawling mélange of loosely linked stories from the past, present and future, all of them drawn from David Mitchell’s much-heralded and supposedly unfilmable novel from 2004. Six anecdotal stories—set in six different periods of history—come to us in non-chronological order, bit by interwoven bit, with a large and impressive cast playing multiple roles.
It’s a daring endeavor on several counts. And not the least of its various accomplishments is that, over nearly three hours of moderately unconventional (and chronologically scrambled) storytelling, it sustains itself as steadily engaging dramatic entertainment. It is (I am told) a somewhat watered-down rendition of the novel’s vision, but it nevertheless succeeds for the most part in giving cinematic momentum to a kind of multifaceted perspective rarely seen in movies.
The film is something of a collaborative hybrid, coming as it does from a trio of writer-directors—Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the sibling team of Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix). Tykwer directed the modern-day sections—the romantic and professional travails of a young, gay composer (Ben Whishaw) in the Britain of the 1930s; the efforts of an investigative reporter (Halle Berry) to expose a corporate energy scandal in 1973; and the present-day misadventures of a slightly addled literary editor (Jim Broadbent) trying to escape confinement in a prison-like nursing home.
The Wachowskis directed the 19th-century segment, the shipboard drama of a young businessman (Jim Sturgess) who comes to the aid of a stowaway slave, as well as the two episodes set in the future—in Korea in 2144, a young “fabricant” (Doona Bae) rebels against the socially engineered regimentation imposed by a high-tech oligarchy; and in 2346 two very different survivor/refugees (Berry and Tom Hanks) try to sort out their respective heritages and destinies.
The six separate episodes are linked in part by recurring motifs—a distinctive birthmark, missing manuscripts, injustices of race and social class, etc.—and by story variations that echo each other. In addition, recurring gestures and matched elements of the production design give film editor Alexander Berner plenty of opportunities for implied linkage in the achronological transitions from one narrative fragment to the next.
Following those motifs and echoes is one of the quiet pleasures offered by this occasionally clamorous movie. And something akin to that is at work in the business of having a dozen or so of the main cast appearing in a variety of guises, some more prominent than others, in nearly every episode.
Hanks, Berry, Bae, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant appear in all six. Broadbent and Whishaw are in five, while Sturgess is credited with playing no fewer than seven characters. Susan Sarandon has only four parts here, but she—along with Berry, Broadbent, Bae and Weaving (who plays a fearsome female in one episode)—is among those who make something like a lasting impression.
In the story, the composer played by Whishaw is working on “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil composed their own version and made it the movie’s musical theme.