Based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas offers an intriguing and visually captivating cinematic experience that’s well worth seeing, if only for its unorthodox narrative. However, you would be well advised to familiarize yourself with the bestseller’s cryptic plot structure, if you want to have an idea about what’s going on.
Since I hadn’t read the British Book Award winning novel, I initially found myself quite baffled by the surrealistic elliptical storyline. Still, I was able to enjoy it immensely after gradually discerning the underlying method to the time-shifting madness.
The story consists of a half-dozen insular adventures which ultimately interlock despite unfolding over the course of past, present, and future eras. They transpire in locales as far afield as a Pacific atoll in the 1840s, Cambridge, England in the 1930s, San Francisco in the 1970s, present day London, Korea in the 2140s, and a post apocalyptic Hawaii in the 2340s. Meanwhile, the adventures’ themes range from slavery and gay love, to corporate mind control.
It took a collaboration by a trio of noted directors, Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix), to create this ambitious $100 million screen adaptation. In addition, the principal cast members, including Oscar-winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, and Jim Broadbent, each play multiple versions of reincarnated characters.
Cloud Atlas is a morality play about human fears, frailties, and failings as well as a mind-bending science fiction mystery. While you’re busy deciphering complicated clues, the picture intermittently indulges in fortune cookie type philosophy about the deeper meaning of life.
The dialogue is diminished by preachy poster speak such as “separation is an illusion,” “to know yourself is only possible through the eyes of another,” and “from womb to tomb we are bound to others” that is designed to deliver a simplistic New Age message. Another minor flaw is the film’s almost three-hour running time, which can easily be explained by the directors’ desire to remain as faithful to the 544-page source material as possible, rather than conflate characters, condense chapters, and make other concessions for the sake of a Hollywood formula.
Very Good (***). Rated R for violence, profanity, sexuality, ethnic slurs, nudity, and drug use. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 172 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.