At the end of last year, as I was counting down to the year-end films worth watching, I wrote about my concerns for Cloud Atlas, the movie based on the award-winning book by David Mitchell. The novel consisted of 6 nested stories which are interconnected either thematically or by a plot element; everyone agreed that it would be a daunting task to adapt such a book. On my part, after the relative disappointment of the Matrix sequels (2003) and the unwatchable Speed Racer (2008), I was really worried that the Wachowskis’ creative well had run dry.
Then the movie was released and my fears seemed to be valid as it tanked in the US, grossing just $27 million and didn’t do enough in the rest of the world (another $97 million) to recover its budget.
Critics were sharply divided. Its average Metacritic score is 55, but that doesn’t tell the story. Scores range from 100 for Roger Ebert’s review to just 50 for Richard Corliss and 40 for Kenneth Turan of the LA Times. Rottentomatoes which aggregates scores from non-US markets gave it a 67% score.
I eventually saw the film a few days ago and am happy to say it wasn’t as bloated (it has a run time of 172 minutes) or complicated as the reviews indicated.
No doubt, the directors (the Wachowski siblings + Tom Tykwer) chose to change the story structure so that all the stories are being told simultaneously, rather than in the nested structure of the book. They also chose to use the same actors to play characters who are ‘thematically linked’ across the different stories. The two decisions are interconnected and they work in my opinion. Although it took me a few minutes to switch my brain into this gear, I thereafter found it relatively easy to follow the multiple storylines and get a sense of the common thread running through them.
I really enjoyed the multiple performances of Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent (among others)…bolstered by some spectacular make-up (yes, yes some of it doesn’t work that well)…in some cases with actors playing characters of the opposite gender. Among the lesser known actors, I thought James D’Arcy was quite impressive as well as Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw (the new ‘Q’ in Skyfall)…all British actors. With such a large cast, some characters invariably don’t work out and Halle Berry’s Meronym was one such character, although her Luisa Rey was quite good.
The special effects were fantastic and it goes to show just how much can be achieved on a budget of $100 million when a film is shot in Europe using a largely European cast and crew, plus some big American stars who were willing to put aside financial considerations to make this project come to life.
My favourite segment was probably the Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) segment from the present time which played like a black comedy…and oh, wasn’t it a pleasure to see Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving) get her comeuppance at the end of the segment? Equally engaging was the opening segment set in the South Pacific Ocean in 1849 featuring the dastardly Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks with prosthetic nose, teeth and all). Perhaps the weakest segment was the one set in the far future, but this too had a happy enough ending with a grizzled and scarred Zachry (Tom Hanks again) seated around a fire telling his grandchildren stories (in fact, it transpires that he is the person telling all the stories).
Definitely worth a try as long as you go in with an open mind. Watching it on DVD will make it even easier as viewers will be able to go back and forth to sort out any continuity issues. I enjoyed the film sufficiently that I have now started reading the book, armed with the prior knowledge of plot and characters!