Film of the week: Head in the clouds in a cinema epic
Director: Tom Tykwer, Lana and Andy Wachowski Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon
Cloud Atlas (15A, general release, 172 minutes)
Tom Tykwer, the Wachowskis and Warner Bros are to be applauded, I suppose, for having taken on David Mitchell's mind-bending 2004 novel at all. Because if ever a book was virtually un-adaptable, it's Cloud Atlas.
A sprawling philosophical and spiritual fantasy that begins in the 1840s and ends in a post-apocalyptic extraterrestrial future, the book involves six interweaving but superficially unconnected plots and a host of characters both comic and deadly serious. No wonder Cloud Atlas cost $100m to make and is almost three hours long.
Its cast has to work pretty hard too. In keeping with the novel's theme of reincarnation and the universality of human nature, a core group of 10 actors each play a series of roles. In fact Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess play six different characters each in a film that ought to be totally confusing but somehow isn't.
One thing Cloud Atlas' three directors do pretty well is tell their stories and, despite regular and sudden leaps between different eras, the film remains surprisingly easy to follow – if not to explain.
To the plot, then, or rather the plots. In 1849, a mild-mannered American lawyer called Ewing is in the South Pacific on slave business when he falls ill and does not realise that someone is trying to poison him. In 1930s Britain, meanwhile, an ambitious young composer called Frobisher escapes scandal in Cambridge. In 1973, a San Francisco journalist uncovers a dark conspiracy at a nuclear plant. In present-day London, success turns to disaster for an old publisher.
And things get truly mind-boggling when we head to the city of Seoul in the year 2144, where a nightmarish totalitarian state is exposed by a cloned humanoid fast-food waitress.
Blimey. Cloud Atlas begins at a fireside where an old, battle-scarred man (an absolutely unrecognisable Tom Hanks) mutters darkly in a futuristic patois about 'Old Georgie', a devil-like character who has tailed him through his life.
From there, the film spins outward into its six sub-plots.
It's a pretty impressive feat, and Tykwer and the Wachowskis must have storyboarded the hell out of this one. In terms of sheer organisation alone, Cloud Atlas does take the breath away, as at times does David Mitchell's vision. Perhaps inevitably, however, the film doesn't always hang together, and some scenes and stories are more successful than others.
Perhaps the most satisfying story of all is the one involving present-day London publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who thinks his ship has come in when a no-hope Irish novelist called Dermot Hoggins (Hanks again) throws a preening critic off a high building, instantly becoming both a felon and a bestselling celebrity.
There are plenty of bits and pieces in Cloud Atlas to enjoy, and fine performances too, especially from Broadbent, Hanks, Grant and Ben Whishaw.
The prosthetics and costumes vary wildly from the sublime to the ridiculous, the more grandiose futuristic plots handled by the Wachowskis are less impressive, and the Huxley-esque segment in Neo Seoul is rendered practically unwatchable by flashy CGI effects.
In a way, though, the three directors have succeeded in creating a film that's so multifarious it's almost impossible to review. Should you go and see it? Probably, because it's spectacular to look at, and is often a lot of fun.