Film Review: “Unfilmable” Sci-Fi Novel Cloud Atlas Defies Time And Space On The Silver Screen

Time-Hopping Sci-Fi Tale Soars—But How High?

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Cloud Atlas
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“Unfilmable” is an adjective that has been attached to countless well-regarded literary works. It’s meant to convey a novel with a topic so epic or eccentric that translating it to screen would be nothing less than a minor miracle. That hasn’t entirely dissuaded filmmakers. Dune, A Confederacy of Dunces, Naked Lunch, The Life of Pi, Ulysses, Crash, Tristram Shandy, Gravity’s Rainbow, Neuromancer, Catch-22, The Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, The Catcher in the Rye—some of these have actually been produced. Some were even made well. Others, not so much. A few are still in the pipeline. And several will remain tantalizing, forever-unsolvable puzzles for the movie biz.

Among the books often labeled unfilmable is David Mitchell’s 2004 sci-fi hexaptych
Cloud Atlas. Somebody finally decided to wrestle that tiger, though, and the results are structurally (if not always emotionally) miraculous—a $100 million genre-hopping art house blockbuster in search of a sympathetic audience. To achieve this Herculean labor took no less than the writing-directing superpowers of the Matrix-making Wachowski siblings (formerly known as the Wachowski brothers) and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (best known for 1998’s Run Lola Run).

Kudos are definitely in order for even attempting the complex nesting doll of a narrative that is
Cloud Atlas. In the first 15 minutes of the film, audience members are introduced to six different narratives in six divergent time periods. With a little patience and a modicum of attention, it’s relatively easy to sort out the tangled fragments. Chronologically speaking, we’ve got segments in 1850, 1936, 1973, 2012, 2177 and sometime way in the far-flung future. Tykwer handles the historical portions, while the Wachowskis (unsurprisingly) deal with the more action-oriented, space-age segments.

Once you’ve got the story sections organized in your head, you’ll come to realize that each exists as a (possibly fictional) segment in the following narrative. We start in the late 19th century with a young San Francisco man traveling to the South Seas to seek his fortune, ostensibly in the slave trade. That story carries over as a published journal read by a penniless English musician who finds work as an amanuensis (fancy word for “secretary”) to a famous composer.

The musician’s letters to his lover back home in London pop up in the next segment about a female reporter investigating malfeasance at a nuclear power plant outside ’70s-era San Francisco. In 2012, the reporter’s story becomes a mystery novel manuscript read by a harried book publisher who flees a thuggish client and ends up a prisoner at a nursing home. By the time we roll around to 2177, the book publisher’s tale has become a melodramatic movie viewed by a genetically engineered slave contemplating rebellion in the dystopian world of Neo-Seoul. Temporally if not structurally, the story closes out in the postapocalyptic Pacific where an island-dwelling villager (who happens to worship a goddess with the same name as our rebellious Korean slave) encounters a woman trying to access the long-lost technology of Earth’s ancient ancestors.

The impressive cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Hugh Grant and Keith David. Each one plays multiple characters across multiple timelines. Over the course of the film—and with varying success—the actors switch ages, races and even genders. (I’m guessing Lana—née Larry—Wachowski had a hand in this last sleight of hand.) Some viewers may choose to be offended by what occasionally amounts to high-tech blackface. But that’s an argument for another day. While there is a certain gimmickiness to the film’s cheeky game of spot-the-actor, it gives the stories an essential visual cohesion.

Overall, the stories hint at a universal unity, reflected heavily in the revolutionary words of our Korean slave girl, Sonmi-451. Her philosophy states that we are all attached to one another, past and present. Hence, our actions, both good and bad, reverberate throughout space and time. As sci-fi philosophies go, it’s more elegant (if less concise) than “Be excellent to one another!” from
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Cloud Atlas’ morality sounds suspiciously like karma to you, that’s probably correct. After all, our characters do seem to be playing out similar themes and stories (with very similar faces) over and over again. Are we meant to view these people as direct reincarnations of one another? Or is the web here more complex than that? On the surface, Cloud Atlas resembles Darren Aronofsky’s long-gestating vanity project The Fountain. That film too had a single cast enacting stories over multiple timelines. Cloud Atlas has a better sense of humor and feels less like a chatty discourse on destiny.

Despite coming from three different directors, our six plot strands weave together with expert precision, like instruments in a symphony. Occasionally, when the piece is really working, they dovetail beautifully, reaching a simultaneous crescendo of action. My only wish is that the payoff had been larger. The film’s major philosophical points (slavery is bad, do good things and good things will happen to you) aren’t what you’d call radical. And for a story with such a complex, borderline experimental setup, the plot strands all end right where you’d expect them to. I worry that average cineplex patrons will find the film too long and complex, while more adventurous viewers won’t be as stimulated as they’d hoped. Sad that the filmmakers could nail Mitchell’s massive narrative, yet fail to deliver the earth-shattering emotional coda it deserves.

Cloud Atlas

no. I am not Keanu Reeves.”

Cloud Atlas

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka has gone seriously downhill.

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