There's nobility in striving for a cause that seems foolhardy, toward a goal that could bring greater joy and understanding to the world. That's one of the many ideas bubbling through Cloud Atlas. It's also a way of thinking about the project itself. David Mitchell's 2004 novel seems unfilmable, with six stories that span from the 1840s to the 2200s. You'd have to be slightly nuts to think three directors - the Matrix trilogy's Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Run Lola Run's Tom Tykwer - could wrangle this material into a cohesive, three-hour cinematic experience.
Yet we charge through these stories with a feverish intensity, as if the filmmakers believed they could hold everything together through sheer force of will. Multiple actors play multiple roles across the multiple narratives, beginning in 1849 with an attorney (Jim Sturgess) sailing through the South Pacific with a stowaway Maori (David Gyasi). In 1936, a disinherited ne'er-do-well (Ben Whishaw) transcribes music for an ailing composer (Jim Broadbent). In 1973, a reporter (Halle Berry) investigates the safety of a new nuclear power plant. In present-day London, a book publisher (Broadbent) finds himself trapped in a facility for seniors. In 2144, genetically engineered servant Soonmi-351 (Doona Bae) rebels against a corporate dictatorship in South Korea. And in Hawaii, after an unspecified catastrophe, a primitive villager (Tom Hanks) gets a visit from a more technologically advanced survivor (Berry).
Mitchell built his novel with a telescoping structure, moving forward chronologically to establish the plots before moving backward to resolve them. The film's directors intercut the stories throughout Cloud Atlas' running time, and the results aren't pretty. Each story brings a distinct tone, from broad, almost slapstick comedy for the present-day London segment to science-fiction adventure for the 2144 portion. It's clear that the intended effect is a visual symphony. Instead, juxtaposition of these stories leads to dissonance.
The filmmakers' editing choices seem designed to highlight thematic connections among the different storylines. There are few things more tedious than multi-narrative tales that make a profoundly obvious observation. Each Cloud Atlas story shows the powerful trying to exert their will on those beneath them. It's one thing to cross-cut between the escape of Soonmi-351 and an AWOL slave's attempts to prove his worthiness as a sailor; it's another for this crescendo of rebellious moments to include Hugo Weaving dressed in drag, getting a cask of wine smashed over his head.
Individually, many of these stories would make compelling 90-minute features. But the best individual moments rarely get a chance to shine because we're forever reminded what a transcendent experience we're meant to be sharing.