Time-travel tale that’s both tasteless and touching

Imagine a three-hour episode of an American daytime soap opera like General Hospital or The Bold and The Beautiful. Then populate it with Academy Award-winning talent and give it a budget of approximately 100 million dollars. Imagine each scene takes place in a different time period, spanning the 19th century to the 23rd, and you get a sense of the scale and strangeness of this colossal monster of a movie. If you’re puzzled how the latter qualities could resemble a soap opera, it’s all in the form: scenes from six storylines are intercut, each playing out to reach a dramatic climax or cliff hanger, at which point the film then switches to the next storyline and repeats the same trick. Your anticipation for the outcome of any given dramatic scenario is routinely prolonged by this narrative latticing as a means of holding your interest over the considerable running time – which it does with reasonable success; Cloud Atlas is nothing if not engaging.

The storylines include Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a young, aristocratic lawyer who is keeping company with slave traders when we find him, but over the course of his journey, finds his fate inextricably linked to that of a Moriori slave (David Gyasi); Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a young composer who, inspired by the diaries of the aforementioned Ewing, composes his masterpiece, the ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’; Sonmi-451 (Bae Doona), one of many bio-mechanical clones enslaved in the near future by a fast food chain and who dares to rise up against her oppressors; and finally an even further-flung future in which Sonmi-451 has become something of a religious figurehead, and the Earth has been ravaged by war and ecological disaster. This segment bookends the film, showing a society that has devolved into primitive feudal warfare and religious fervour. Here tribesman Zachry (Hanks) is inexplicably subjected to mental torment by Papa Lazarou of The League of Gentlemen …

It’s a deliberately strange, eclectic mix of styles and genres that frequently engage, despite occasionally failing to gel. The transitions from one timeline to another are often the most inventive moments: thrilling when they work, frustrating when they don’t. Take the opening for example: we are introduced to each story in quick succession – a dizzying antithesis of the ‘easing you in gently’ approach. It’s the right move, however – with actors each playing several roles across the six timelines, it’s crucial that the audience remains on its toes and attentive throughout, and particularly during this expositional groundwork. 

The most jarring of the timelines features a present-day London segment that follows a publisher of hard-man fiction (Jim Broadbent) who, upon mixing with the wrong author, finds himself on the run from a group of Irish mobsters. This chapter is intentionally comedic and plays like the slapstick elements of a Guy Ritchie crime caper. Directed by Tom Tykwer (directing duties were divided equally between Tykwer and the brothers Wachowski), this segment is one I’d be tempted to omit – and yet, while the awkward humour misses more often than not, it undeniably contributes breathing space to an otherwise earnest and densely-packed viewing experience.

Tykwer and the Wachowskis should be commended for taking on David Mitchell’s ambitious novel, producing it as an independent production and crafting a mind-boggling patchwork that ruminates on the ways in which we propagate the master and slave dynamic, while simultaneously attempting to communicate the unseen ways in which our life paths overlap and infinitely intersect. Yes, it’s dramatically clumsy at times, aesthetically garish and philosophically daft, but it’s whimsical folly on a grand scale: it shouldn’t really work, but it nearly does. I didn’t fall in love with it, but neither will I soon forget it

Cloud Atlas (15) 



Dir: Tom Tykwer, Lana & Andy Wachowski; Ger/US/Sin/HK drama/comedy, 2012, 172 mins; Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon

Premiered March 14

Playing nationwide



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