Does 'Cloud Atlas' Soar?

Article excerpt

Byline: David Ansen

A megawatt cast attempts to bring the book to life.

David Mitchell's astonishing 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, is one of the great high-wire acts of contemporary fiction. This wildly ambitious page-turner spins six separate tales that leap from the high seas in 1849 to 1936 England to San Francisco in 1973 up to present-day London, then forward to a dystopian New Seoul of 2144, and further into the savage, post-apocalyptic future on a Hawaiian island. But then, midway through this 500-page Russian doll of a book, it rewinds and takes us back through each story until it ends at its starting point in the 19th century. Mixing styles and genres with flamboyant virtuosity and structural daring, Mitchell compiled a wholly original vision of the human condition out of borrowed parts--pillaging everything from Herman Melville to Evelyn Waugh to science fiction and political-conspiracy thrillers.

In this era of low-risk comic-book blockbusters, you have to marvel at the financiers willing to roll the dice--to the tune of more than $100 million--on a project this far outside the box. Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy, (the Wachowski pair and Tykwer each directed three of the six tales) swings for fences. Star-studded, running nearly three hours, loaded with grand philosophical ruminations about good and evil, freedom and captivity, and the eternal battle between the strong and the weak, it struggles mightily to do justice to Mitchell's grand scheme--and fails almost entirely.

The screenplay by Tykwer and the Wachowskis reverently duplicates the events in Mitchell's multitiered book, but they haven't found a cinematic equivalent to his virtuoso style. Instead of following the novel's bold structure, they've chopped the six stories into little pieces and continually leap back and forth from one to the other, never settling for long on any. It's almost impossible for the viewer to get emotional traction: it's like watching the trailers for six different movies simultaneously, and never getting to the feature.

One minute we are on a 19th-century vessel where a young and ailing lawyer (Jim Sturgess) comes to the aid of a stowaway African slave, the next we're following a scheming bisexual composer (Ben Whishaw) as he takes a job as the amanuensis to a famous musical genius (Jim Broadbent) in his English countryside manor; then we are flung into a '70s political thriller in which an intrepid reporter (Halle Berry) risks her life to uncover the dirty secrets of Hugh Grant's nuclear power plant. In the farcical present-day tale, Broadbent reappears as a shady, beleaguered literary editor who becomes a virtual prisoner in an old-age home. …