DVD review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

(MA15+) **

Director: Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy.

DAVID Mitchell's tour de force novel Cloud Atlas is a sprawling, epoch-spanning marvel that's as entertaining as it is ambitious.

It's also one of those books that was always going to be difficult to turn into a film.

As a movie, Cloud Atlas is as bold as the novel. However, it is predominantly a noble defeat - compressing Mitchell's six segments and endless interwining themes into a streamlined narrative proves beyond the grasp of The Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer), Tom Tykwer (Perfume, Run Lola Run) and a willing cast.

The six stories span almost five centuries and in Mitchell's book they run sequentially forward, then back again to the beginning, but in the film they are edited together into a mass of parallel stories that jump back and forth between each other.

In 1849, lawyer Adam Ewing (Sturgess) is battling illness on a trans-Pacific voyage. In England, 87 years later, musician Robert Frobisher (Whishaw) is reading Ewing's journal while helping composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) write his symphonies. In San Francisco in 1973, journalist Luisa Rey (Berry) discovers Frobisher's letters to his lover while she investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant. 

Luisa's story ends up as a manuscript in the hands of published Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) in present day England, where Cavendish is fleeing unhappy clients only to end up trapped in an old folks home. His story is eventually made into a movie that transfixes Sonmi-451 (Bae), a clone in Neo Seoul in 2144, who is whisked from her regimented life by a freedom fighter (Sturgess) who intends to use her as a figurehead and catalyst for social upheaval in the corporatocracy they live in. And finally there is Zachry (Hanks), whose people worship Sonmi in a post-apocalyptic 2321.

As you can likely guess, jumping back and forth between these tales is disconcerting, distracting and disruptive. Despite the best efforts of the directors and their editor, Cloud Atlas struggles to maintain momentum or allow an ongoing connection with the characters.

It does allow the film to play up the links that run through the segments though, which are tied together by ideas about past lives, reincarnation, and an undying spirit of survival and determination that runs through humanity, as well as themes of prejudice, love, regret, redemption, freedom, and oppression.

It's these ideals and concepts that give Cloud Atlas a depth that may come to be appreciated over multiple viewings (if you can handle the 172-minute running time). Moments fly by, narratives are set aside almost randomly, and the individual vernacular and style of each story thread can take some time to adjust to, particularly Zachry's post-apocalyptic tale, which is told in a pidgin English that is a struggle to follow at times. But going back to soak it in again and again could make this film a rich experience that rewards over time - it's likely this is destined for cult status.

Watching it first time through, however, will leave many cold. It's scattershot approach is distancing, despite the best efforts of the cast, who appear in multiple roles though some ingenius make-up work, further highlighting the links between the different time periods, albeit in an occasionally distracting and slightly confusing way.

There's a lot to like about Cloud Atlas and the effort to adapt Mitchell's novel should be applauded. Unfortunately it doesn't quite fit together - it's big ideas and ambitious plotting fly by at the expense of having an engaging story that builds emotion and connects to an audience.

Ultimately, it's a scattershot film that courageously tries to incorporate as much of the novel as possible, only to find it doesn't translate well from the page.

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