David Mitchell’s astonishing 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, is one of the great high-wire acts of contemporary fiction. This wildly ambitious page-turner spins six separate tales that leap from the high seas in 1849 to 1936 England to San Francisco in 1973 up to present-day London, then forward to a dystopian New Seoul of 2144, and further into the savage, post-apocalyptic future on a Hawaiian island. But then, midway through this 500-page Russian doll of a book, it rewinds and takes us back through each story until it ends at its starting point in the 19th century. Mixing styles and genres with flamboyant virtuosity and structural daring, Mitchell compiled a wholly original vision of the human condition out of borrowed parts—pillaging everything from Herman Melville to Evelyn Waugh to science fiction and political-conspiracy thrillers.
In this era of low-risk comic-book blockbusters, you have to marvel at the financiers willing to roll the dice—to the tune of more than $100 million—on a project this far outside the box. Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy, (the Wachowski pair and Tykwer each directed three of the six tales) swings for fences. Star-studded, running nearly three hours, loaded with grand philosophical ruminations about good and evil, freedom and captivity, and the eternal battle between the strong and the weak, it struggles mightily to do justice to Mitchell’s grand scheme—and fails almost entirely.
The screenplay by Tykwer and the Wachowskis reverently duplicates the events in Mitchell’s multitiered book, but they haven’t found a cinematic equivalent to his virtuoso style. Instead of following the novel’s bold structure, they’ve chopped the six stories into little pieces and continually leap back and forth from one to the other, never settling for long on any. It’s almost impossible for the viewer to get emotional traction: it’s like watching the trailers for six different movies simultaneously, and never getting to the feature.
One minute we are on a 19th-century vessel where a young and ailing lawyer (Jim Sturgess) comes to the aid of a stowaway African slave, the next we’re following a scheming bisexual composer (Ben Whishaw) as he takes a job as the amanuensis to a famous musical genius (Jim Broadbent) in his English countryside manor; then we are flung into a ’70s political thriller in which an intrepid reporter (Halle Berry) risks her life to uncover the dirty secrets of Hugh Grant’s nuclear power plant. In the farcical present-day tale, Broadbent reappears as a shady, beleaguered literary editor who becomes a virtual prisoner in an old-age home. In 2144’s Blade Runner-ish Neo Seoul, a Fabricant (Doona Bae), who’s been manufactured by her masters to serve the needs of the Consumer, develops a human soul and joins forces with a revolutionary (Sturgess) to take down the government. At the post-apocalyptic end of the line, we encounter Tom Hanks as a tattooed goatherder fighting for his life against marauding, crossbow-wielding savages, his only ally the beautiful survivor of the civilized world, once again played by Berry.
What links these characters? A mysterious comet-shaped birthmark suggests that they might be reincarnations of each other. And the entire cast, which includes Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, David Gyasi, and James D’Arcy, plays multiple roles—popping up in different eras under mounds of distractingly obtrusive makeup. Thus Tom Hanks appears as a malignant doctor on that slave-trading ship, a vicious cockney novelist in the present day, and (among others) an orange-haired scientist passing forbidden memos to Berry in the conspiracy thriller. The actors get to switch ages, races, and even gender: Hugo Weaving takes a turn in drag as a thuggish Nurse Ratched–type in the old-age home. This is doubtless supposed to reinforce the universal theme of human continuity, but it plays like a bad stunt. Gosh, is that actually Halle Berry as the old English composer’s German-Jewish wife? Could that be Hugh Grant under all that latex as Broadbent’s scheming brother? Is this a movie about the eternal battle between freedom and oppression or a Halloween party?
The movie is not kind to its actors: Broadbent, Whishaw, and Bae are the only ones who manage to generate some actual human feeling. The best sequences are those in 1936, 2144, and the present; the most disastrous is that distant, bleak Hawaiian future, where a barely intelligible Hanks and Berry fight a losing battle with their invented pidgin English. (In the novel, the hybrid language was a triumph.)
You’d think that the filmmakers would have taken their cue from Mitchell and played with different cinematic styles for each section: sure, the production design and the costumes change, but the filmmaking itself remains oddly mundane and conventional. If you haven’t read Mitchell’s book, you’d have no clue what makes it so thrilling and unique—and you’ll be mightily confused for at least the first hour. If you have read it, you’d be wise to preserve your fond memories and steer clear of this earnest but misbegotten adaptation, which reduces a moving tour de force to a dull and homiletic house of frenetically shuffled cards.
David Ansen was Newsweek’s film critic from 1977 to 2010.