Cloud Atlas is an ambitious big-budget indie film by the Wachowskis, featuring big names such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving. Apparently Tom Hanks pushed hard to keep production going even when the film had financial troubles – it’s a labour of love, and has an amazing scope. The film is adapted from a novel that has six nested layers, each referring to a story of the past; there are some symbols that link characters in the different timelines, but the film has the ability to go further – the same actors characters in each of the movie’s six timelines (though this may deviate from who the novel links). Characters are good in one timeline but malicious in another (except for Weaving, who is pretty much evil all the time!), and the makeup department does an amazing job with a couple of overreaches – the Asianised Caucasians fall short (the Westernised Asian also looks rather strange), and this led to some politicised complaints at the time of release. Tom Hanks as a criminal thug and Hugh Grant as a cannibal barbarian are hilarious to see (if you can recognise them).
The book visits each timeline roughly twice (the middle one is twice as long), but the movie crosscuts repeatedly between them, a technique that is especially effective in film. Each timeline has a different tone – a travel journal contemplating the “ladder of civilisation”, the melodramatic encounters of a bisexual artist, a mystery action-thriller, a screwball comedy, a sci-fi romance, and a post-apocalyptic tale, and it’s a delight to see one film attempt so much across hundreds of years of history and speculated future.
Quite appropriately, the music is breathtaking, and something else that’s only possible in this medium. The author was apparently extremely happy with the film, and I can understand why: the medium is used so well to tell the story, employing techniques impossible in the original book.
Cloud Atlas is a tough film and certainly not for everyone – it’s long, convoluted, and required a few attempts – but if you enjoy a story that sweeps across time, and an epic endeavour that brings together lots different elements, you’ll love it as I did.