Cloud Atlas is an almost impossible movie to summarize – just as it was almost impossible to adapt to the screen. The 2004 novel has a vast scope that follows six interrelated stories that take place in a time span from the mid-19th Century to the distant twilight of humanity on Earth. It took a triumvirate of writer/directors to attempt the impossible adaptation. Even less unlikely, they have succeeded.
Andy and Lana Wachowski are the siblings responsible for The Matrix, which changed the way movies were filmed with its digital twisting of reality. The two sequels (Reloaded and Revolutions) dimmed the quality of the original, and they also did the script for the 2008 bomb Speed Racer. In between those movies, though, they did a decent adaptation of V For Vendetta. The other collaborator for Cloud Atlas is Tom Tykwer, who burst onto the scene with Run Lola Run in 1998. He also directed the 2009 Clive Owen/Naomi Watts thriller The International.
The six stories in the book are:
- The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: In the 1840s, Ewing is sent to a mission outpost in the South Pacific. On his way back to San Francisco, he’s treated by Dr. Henry Goose for a parasite he’s picked up on his journey. He also finds a slave he’d seen being whipped at the mission has stowed away on the ship.
- Letters from Zedelghem: In a series of letters to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, a young and penniless composer named Robert Frobisher tells of becoming an amanuensis to the famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs, and of writing his own masterpiece, the “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Frobisher finds a published version of Ewing’s journal at Ayrs’s home, but the end of the book is missing.
- Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: In 1975, investigative reporter Luisa Rey is trapped on an elevator with a much older Rufus Sixsmith. Sixsmith, now a physicist, points Luisa in the direction of a story about shady operations at a nuclear power plant. Sixsmith is soon killed, and Luisa’s investigation puts her at risk as well. Luisa finds Frobisher’s letters along with Sixsmith’s body and tracks down a recording of “Cloud Atlas Sextet.”
- The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: A present-day publisher, hiding out from creditors, is tricked by his brother into signing himself into a retirement home run by an English version of Nurse Ratched. While incarcerated, he reads the manuscript of Half-Lives.
- An Orison for Sonmi 451: In a future version of Seoul, Korea, clones are created to serve the pureblood society. Sonmi 451 works in a fast food shop, but becomes part of a struggle to overturn the society. Her one enjoyment is a movie version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
- Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After: Far in the future on one of Hawaii’s islands, survivors of the human race exist in agrarian villages and worship a goddess called Sonmi from a time before what is known as The Big Fall. A modern, fusion-powered ship brings Meronym to the island. She is one of a group of technologically-advanced people left from before the Big Fall, called Prescients. She enlists the help of Zachry, one of the villagers, to take her to the top of a dormant volcano in search of a remnant of Sonmi.
For directing duties, the Wachowskis and Tykwer split the six stories between them, though they achieve a unified style that makes you unaware of the change between scenes. It helps that in adapting the stories, they increased the complexity of the book by constantly jumping between the 6 stories. While it requires more attention, it does highlight their interconnectedness and increases the tension.
The movie has a stellar cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgis, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, and James D’Arcy, Keith David, and Susan Sarandon) with each of them playing multiple roles. Hanks and Berry, for instance, play Zachry and Meronym in the final story, but they both show up in supporting roles or cameos in the five other stories. With extensive make-up, it’s hard to tell who’s who at times, though the credits do include pictures of each role.
Because of its nature, as well as its almost 3 hour running time, Cloud Atlas won’t be accessible to everyone. If you’re looking for light entertainment, this is not the movie for you. However, if you’re willing to invest yourself in this film, it becomes a powerful experience dealing with deep themes. As the six stories reach their resolution, the clouds part and you see those themes with clarity. While not perfect, Cloud Atlas is a stunning achievement in filmmaking.