Dirs. Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Cloud Atlas presents itself as avery ambitious project. It is in fact the cinematic adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 best-seller of the same name, a novel formed of six independent stories linked by many details and parallels between the characters. The book covers a span of five hundred years, from the eighteenth century to the future; and the risks implicit in transposing such narrative complexity and contextual variation into a single feature film are obvious.
Unfortunately, all the challenges result in failure, and the ambition of the three directors (Tom Tykwer and the two Wachowskis) does not deliver a well-balanced and entertaining Hollywood adaptation. The final product is a 172-minute-long forgettable and quite boring movie, which will surely not outshine the success of the novel on which it is based.
The premise of the narrative, both Mitchell’s work and this film, is the suggestion that everything is connected. Characters and situations find their analogues throughout the centuries, even when technology and politics are completely different. Many of the characters share a rebellious attitude against power and opression, as well as a small, comet-shaped tattoo. In order to stress the idea that these links can be found between the most diverse historical periods and social environments, the book makes a point of representing each episode with a distinctive narrative style.
The film loses any connection to this most interesting formal feature and flattens out a good part of the potential of each of its six components. The main differences between the episodes in the film are the costumes, rather than tone and atmosphere. Another disputable (but maybe necessary) feature of the movie is the choice of constantly switching from one to story to another, creating something of a narrative montage, rather than presenting one after another. This may easily perplex the first time viewer: the individual narratives are difficult to follow and the single episodes into which these arcs are fragmented feel quite isolated. It is difficult to feel compelled by particular characters or plots when you have to watch another five segments before you get to know something more about them.
The succession of these different scenes can also be confusingly rapid. If the movie, in comparison with the book, lacks formal diversity and clarity, it also presents one novelty that would have been unattainable on the written page. The parallels between the various different characters across the ages are highlighted by having them played by the same bunch of actors.
Even though it is arguable that the adaptation would have been more faithful to the original had it not made explicit that hyper- connectedness that the text left implicit, this is not the reason why such obviousness makes things worse. The problem here is that the parallels in some cases attain a comic rather than a metaphysical effect, making Cloud Atlas, for yet another reason, a failed project.