David Mitchell described his novel, Cloud Atlas, as “one of the most ’unfilmable’ books I’ve ever read.” He also said that if the novel’s structure was retained in the film, it would “suck”. Clearly, Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski agree. Their adaptation is very different from the intricately-plotted novel as far as structure is concerned. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is complicated swirl of sub-plots that take the reader through past, present, future, and all over the world. Nested in this house-of-cards novel is a thriller in which a journalist is hunted by a powerful corporation.
There’s also a sci-fi story, in which “fabricants”, or clones, rebel against a horrific and oppressive system. Yet another sub-plot goes into the future while one goes back into the 1800s. All the stories seem independent but ultimately prove to be intimately connected. Much of the joy of reading Cloud Atlas comes from discovering connections and realising how one character’s experiences loop into another.
Cloud Atlas the film begins near the end of the novel and unravels the stories in flashback. This should make it easier for those watching the film, especially if you haven’t read the book.
However, shuttling between so many time periods and places can be confusing. Add to that the different dialects of English, from old-fashioned to futuristic, and you have moments when even a viewer who has read the book will wonder what the hell is going on. The directors chose to make the actors play multiple roles to make obvious the interconnected nature of the different strands in the story. So, Ben Whishaw is the young composer Robert Frobisher from the ’30s as well as a record store owner from the ’70s and a ship hand in the 1850s. Sometimes, this device works; frequently, it becomes tacky.
While the novel’s many parts add up impressively, the film demands you let go of logic and follow the slipstream of the screenplay. In fact, if you do apply common sense, then Cloud Atlas is unsettlingly akin to Bollywood. Here, reincarnated characters are played by the same actor (and you criticised Karan Arjun for being unbelievable), give or take some prosthetic accessories. How can you not watch Hugh Grant with obviously fake slit eyes, pretending to be a sleazy Korean restaurateur, and not remember Bollywood’s attempts to turn the faces of actors like Madan Puri, Chunky Pandey and Aamir Khan to a more Mongoloid persuasion? Of course, the make-up is much more sophisticated in Cloud Atlas but the effect isn’t much more convincing. One of the most ludicrous parts of the film is when Jim Sturgess appears as the Korean Hae-Joo Chang, and we’re supposed to believe he’s a normal human and Doona Bae, the real South Korean, is a clone.
That said, there are some breathtaking moments in Cloud Atlas. Its greatest strength is the music that remains imaginary in the book. Frobisher’s symphony (titled Cloud Atlas) is a soaring composition and acts as a wonderful sonic backdrop. Tragically, the Indian censors’ moral policing butchers the piece’s crescendo (it accompanies love scenes).
Cloud Atlas is long — at almost three hours, it gives a Karan Johar’s films a run for their money in terms of length — and parts of it are beautiful. But three directors and a novel of dazzling complexity has resulted in a film that is almost naive in parts and frequently implausible. The film simplifies the novel but this doesn’t help make the story more comprehensible. Our advice: read the book.