My best friend from childhood, a ravenous science fiction reader, has been bugging me for several years to pick up David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. Since my friend once read every Hugo Award winning novel ever written (in a single year, on a dare), I try to pay attention to his recommendations. But I never got around to it.
I wish I had. Cloud Atlas has been adapted into a fierce, visionary and deliciously baffling sci-fi epic from co-directors Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix). For fans of speculative fiction — the polite term for science fiction that dares to take itself seriously — it's the must-see film of the year.
Cloud Atlas tells six different stories in parallel, spanning several continents and centuries. Three of the stories reach into the past: San Francisco in 1973; Cambridge, England in 1936; and a ship at sea in 1849. The fourth story is set in present-day London, and the final two take place in the future — Neo Seoul in 2144, and an unspecified post-apocalypse setting long after that.
The central characters in each story are different, of course, but they seem to be recursive versions of the same people, in a way that suggests notions of reincarnation or karma. The characters are played by the same ensemble of actors, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Korean actress Doona Bae. By way of makeup and digital effects, the performers switch ethnicity and even gender between story lines.
Crosscutting between multiple stories in parallel is a tricky maneuver, but as a visual medium cinema has ways of accommodating this approach. Two stories, that's manageable. Three stories is pushing it. Six stories? Insanity.
This will be the opt-out point for many audiences, I suspect. Within the first 15 minutes of Cloud Atlas, it becomes clear that the filmmakers intend to tell all these stories at once, flipping back and forth in time through a maze of narrative arcs.
My advice is to roll with it and let the stories come as they do, in intriguing shards and fragments. The San Francisco story unfolds like a 1970s political thriller, as Berry's journalist character uncovers a deadly corporate scheme. The Neo Seoul scenes are pure Wachowski, all dazzling dystopian visuals and cyberpunk intrigue. The shipboard story in 1849 has a playful, swashbuckling swagger. My personal favorite: Hanks as a desperate post-apocalypse tribesman, speaking pidgin English and staring down the Devil himself.
Chronologically, each story is nested within another and there are intriguing hints throughout about vast cosmic connections. It's impossible, frankly, to keep up with or make sense of the Big Picture in any traditional sense. But about two-thirds of the way in, something interesting happens.
The movie's puzzle pieces start to rotate and click together, to take shape on a storytelling level that's so ancient it's almost subliminal. Tension builds and the darkest hour passes, right before the dawn. At the end of one relentless ten-minute barrage, in which six different stories pivot in sequence, I thought: “Those magnificent bastards. They just started Act III.”
The movie has its themes, all right. Big, fat easy-to-mock themes about freedom, oppression, compassion and the interconnectedness of all human life. (And the eternal righteousness of the Scotsman, I might add.) It's fashionable to deride such earnestness, but after coming off the three-hour thrill ride that is Cloud Atlas, I just wasn't in the mood.
There are soft spots, to be sure. Hanks' iconic persona works against the movie in critical scenes; he can't disappear into a role the way others can. The makeup trickery gets awfully distracting. Toward the end, dialogue becomes too declarative as we're told what to conclude from it all.
But Cloud Atlas is ultimately so ambitious in scope and technique, so nervy and generous, that it's easy to forgive the flaws. When it comes to epic science fiction and fantasy, I'll take reach over grasp every time.