Ambitious, grand, confusing. The latest offering from the Wachowski siblings is a grand movie encompassing six different stories which take place over a span of several hundred years. The film cuts back and forth between the stories, but they almost never connect in a direct way. I’ve spoken to many other people who have seen this film, and the overwhelming message I get is that they spend at least the first half an hour completely confused, and depending on the person, it all either slowly comes together, or… doesn’t.
The film is based on a very good book by David Mitchell. The book is structured in a slightly different way – the first half of each of the six stories is told, and the stories are presented in chronological order, they are all very suddenly cut off. After the halfway point, the stories are resolved, in reverse chronological order. This was never going to work very well in the medium of a film, and to their credit the filmmakers adapted the novel very well to screen. In the book, key phrases and themes are used to connect the seemingly unconnected stories, while in the film they’ve gone so far as to use almost the same set of actors for every single story. This can be slightly confusing.
The production values are exceptional, and while this is a big-budget special effects film, you only feel like there are lots of special effects in the scenes which are set far in the future. The costumes and the dialogue (most of which was taken straight from the book) are all appropriate to the periods. Every little detail from the sound editing, to hair and makeup is brilliantly executed.
But. It just doesn’t quite come together sometimes. The fight scenes (especially the ones from the future) seem a little overdone, and when inserting similar phrases and objects in different time periods in an effort to connect them, sometimes I feel like they are trying too hard. The connections aren’t obvious, but at the same time viewers don’t necessarily want everything spoon-fed to them. Despite the film being nearly three hours long, it does at times seem rushed. Sometimes I wonder what it might be like to cut the short snippets of each story into their own self-contained short films.
Some of the stories are great, and they come together well, while others falter slightly. The story involving the publisher (set in the present) is jarring in that its style doesn’t fit well with the rest of the film. The story about the young musician moving in with the older composer to help him write his music is beautiful and beautifully told, and look out for Ben Whishaw (the computer guy from Skyfall) who puts in a killer performance. The music, including the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’ for which the film is named is also beautiful, in fact, I’m surprised that this film didn’t get an oscar nomination for music score, adapted screenplay, or makeup.
Despite not quite coming together at times, the film is engaging and entertaining. Despite being so long, it is deceptively well-paced and the feeling of being rushed comes about mostly because there is so much material to cover, that it often feels that some was skipped (this is generally true of films adapted from books). I enjoyed it, and after you get over the initial feeling of being disoriented and confused, it’s actually a very nice film to watch. I sometimes wonder if the project would have been better-served by splitting it into two or three films, thus allowing the film makers to ‘flesh out’ each of the stories in more detail.
I highly recommend this film, although I will caution potential viewers that it is very long, and will take a little bit more effort than usual to be able to follow. Stick with it, it’s worth it.