It is easy to go in to Cloud Atlas intimidated. It’s a sprawling, nearly three-hour adaptation of a novel many thought unfilmable, stitching together six seemingly unrelated narratives simultaneously; it’s been preceded by both positive and negative buzz that it’s too ambitious and potentially confusing for the average Saturday night moviegoer. Let’s put those fears to rest right off the bat: this is not a film to fear. It is, in fact, a film that’s easy to approach and even easier to engage. No, the greater danger — what is, in some quarters, already happening — is a resistance to its audacity, a refusal to turn oneself over to this grandly sincere, and occasionally overwrought, cavalcade. It is, make no mistake, a film filled with flaws. Try as I might, I cannot force myself to give a damn about them.
Matrix creators Andy and Lana Wachowski and Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer adapted David Mitchell’s 2004 book together, and team-directed; the Wachowski’s took three of the six storylines, and Tywker took the remainder, the two units shooting concurrently with shared casts (most of the actors appear, in some form or another, in all six stories). The timeframes range from the 19th century to a far-off, post-apocalyptic future, the film deftly skipping and hopping from one to the next, its intentions laid bare by a character’s written plea in the opening sequence: “If you, dear reader, can extend your patience… you’ll find there is a method to all this madness.” In that masterful opening, each story thread is introduced quickly and efficiently, the subtle urgent score (by Tywker and his longtime collaborators Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek) providing an invaluable connective thread.
The stories aren’t just separated by time — they run the gamut from science fiction to historical drama to journalistic thriller to slapstick comedy, and the juxtapositions are sometimes tough to negotiate, a few of the key sequences coming off with the jarring incongruity of channel-surfing. But it’s a strategy that pays off more often than not; the fluidity of the filmmaking is remarkable, whether in big, thrillingly intercut action beats or little transition moments (one person will go to a door and knock, and another door will open decades or even centuries later). This does not feel like a film that was directed in two halves — it’s surprisingly consistent and unified. And the multi-genre mash-up is less discombobulating than it sounds; the filmmakers are like particularly adroit DJs, pulling and sampling everything from Parliament to Mantovani.
Slowly but surely, the hyperlinks are gradually revealed in the everything-is-connected narrative. “I had been here before,” one character notes, “another lifetime ago.” Says another, “Any time she brought up any of that karma or past life stuff, I couldn’t stop laughing.” The screenplay is somewhat guilty of making its themes too clumsily explicit — or maybe it’s not, since so many tone-deaf early reviews have taken issue with the picture’s adaptability in casting, switching genders and (more combustibly) race, the misreading of which indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the movie, but I digress.
The point is this: the persnickety filmgoer can pinpoint all sorts of little problems with Cloud Atlas, and the cynical can choose to point and giggle at snark at its grand ambitions and oft-unchecked, semi-operatic emotions. This is a choice. Or you can appreciate the depth of its commitment and the scope of its achievement. In a film that takes as many gambles as this one, a few are bound to tank. Yes, the old-age makeup and accents are occasionally dodgy. Sure, the comic 2012 story is an uneasy mesh. Of course the denizens of the world “after the fall” speak in an easily mockable dialect. You can key in on those things, and dismiss the enormity of what Cloud Atlas does on the basis of them. But I’d rather it were a film that takes those kinds of risks, and tempts folly, than play it respectable and safe — I’m glad they chose to make a White Album rather than an Magical Mystery Tour. Responses thus far have been divided, and widely; the film is clearly one that viewers either love or hate. Put me in the former camp; this is big-canvas, visceral filmmaking, as challenging and chancy as mainstream movies are likely to get in these timid times.
Cloud Atlas is out today in wide release.