Are some books simply impossible to adapt? It’s one thing to make a disappointing film version of a beloved novel such as The Fountainhead or The Great Gatsby, where the story can be reproduced but the magic of the imagery or the interiority of ideas cannot. But can a book whose very essence depends on its literary structuring successfully morph into a two-dimensional, all-visual medium? Time can only tell with the adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Okay, I kid! Surely that adaptation will have something to satisfy everybody’s sadomasochistic fever. But what about David Mitchell’s massive tome Cloud Atlas, which has now been rejiggered as a film by no less than three directors, Andy and Lana Wachowski of the Matrix trilogy and Tom Twyker, helmer of Run Lola Run. The storytelling trio has condensed the novel as much as they can but have preserved its six tales as concentric circles spinning around each other. The result is a hollow mess: epic storytelling with the emphasis on length, not depth.
Artfully emphasizing the notion of eternal recurrence through the ages, these tales occur in the past, present, near future, and not-so-near future. Follow along: In 1849, a San Francisco attorney, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), travels to the South Pacific to conduct business with a plantation owner. In 1936, a gay composer, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), disinherited by his father abandons his lover to serve as the amanuensis for a fading composer (Jim Broadbent). (The two work on a composition entitled “Cloud Atlas,” a sextet with overlapping soloists.). In 1973, a journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), following in her father’s footsteps, stumbles upon a corporate conspiracy at a nuclear power plant. Then jump to 2012, when a London publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent again) finds himself imprisoned. In 2144, a genetically engineered waitress named Sonmi 351 (Doona Bae) in the dystopia of Neo Seoul (is the future ever utopic?), built above a flooded Seoul, awakens to a rebellion against the repressive regime in charge. And in the post-apocalyptic 2300s, a goat herder (also Hanks) struggles against tribal warfare while protecting Meronym (Berry again).
This may sound like a lot of plot, but spread over nearly three hours, it doesn’t take long to follow each of the distinct threads, although only a couple of them – Luisa Rey’s mystery and Sonmi 351’s mission – carry any dramatic currency. (The Cavendish thread, however, makes for an amusing lark.) Adapted in similar form to what David Hare did with the time-bouncing film version of The Hours, Twyker and the Wachowskis, with the ace editing of Alexander Berner, hurtle around and around their chronology, not always in order, and sometimes leaving several threads dangling for too long a period before returning to them.
Cloud Atlas is really an old-school escapist entertainment that takes advantage of the latest technological advances. And indeed, all the technical artistry to be found from reel to reel is top-notch, from Frank Griebe and Oscar-winner John Toll’s cinematography to Alexander Buck’s sound to Wesley Barnard’s special effects. (In this respect, Cloud Atlas is truly a cinematic TKO.) And perhaps no one works harder than Heike Merker’s make-up team, who manage to disguise its cast, which also includes Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving among others, in a variety of guises as Twyker and the Wachowskis recycle them in this Westing Game of a movie. Actors play various races, ages, nationalities, and some even straddle both genders. For instance, Weaving plays a ruthless henchman, a devilish spirit and even a nurse. James D’Arcy and Sturgess play the ill-fated lovers in 1936, and later also appear as Koreans in the Neo Seoul tale. Grant appears as an oily executive in the 1973 segment, and is also rendered unrecognizable as an elderly Brit and a savage tribesman.
Make that almost unrecognizable. Part of the film’s fun comes in pointing out “Hey, it’s so-and-so again! Look at what they did to them now!” But this also becomes a great distraction from the stories being told. Is it really necessary for Berry to cameo as an Indian woman with no dialogue at a party in 2012? The actors must have had a blast during production, assuming the make-up wasn’t too painful. In particular, Broadbent, Sturgess and a haunting Bae make the most lasting impressions, while Berry’s and Hanks’ unfocused impersonations feel more like posing and posturing than thorough performances.
A bigger problem, however, is that Cloud Atlas actually isn’t as fun as it could be. The three filmmakers aim to promote big themes of survival, fate and freedom, and their tales feel more like preachy allegories than diverting tales. The movie’s episodic structure should play like old-school cliffhangers, but I never found myself on the edge of my seat, impatient to find out what would happen next in any of the threads. Despite all the state-of-the-art visuals on display, the fabric of the story in Cloud Atlas remains lacking. It’s a well-intentioned movie still very much in search of its soul.