British author David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" is the very definition of an unfilmable novel: It boasts a complex, multipart narrative that unfolds in six separate eras from the 1850s through the present and far future, a large cast of characters, a slew of symbolic linkages, and multiple layers of linguistic invention.
And yet Andy and Lana Wachowski, the sibling directors behind "The Matrix" trilogy, along with "Run Lola Run" director Tom Tykwer, have gone and made a big-screen, big-budget adaptation of it anyway.
Or at least they've tried. Although they are more successful than one might have imagined, and their ambition is to be admired, they are not nearly as successful as fans of the book might have hoped. Like so many novel-to-screen translators before them, they have turned a great book into a mediocre movie.
Mr. Mitchell's novel is an intricate novelistic clockwork, both in its language and its narrative structure, and much of the pleasure of reading it comes from appreciating his masterful work as a literary technician. The novel's broader themes of kindness, freedom and generational connection are more conventional, but they work because of the author's formidable skills as a storyteller and craftsman.
But the Wachowskis and Mr. Tykwer can't replicate Mr. Mitchell's distinctly literary fireworks on the big screen. Indeed, they barely even try. The movie keeps a bit of Mr. Mitchell's futuristic patois, but only enough to make it sound silly. It ditches the book's cleverly stacked narrative structure — in which each of the stories is told to its midpoint, then cut off, only to be finished in the book's second half — for three hours of freewheeling narrative montage.
Rather than sticking with any of the stories for long, the movie jumps from era to era, highlighting obvious connections between the many characters and stories, but rarely letting viewers stay with any of them long enough to get comfortable. The effect, especially when compounded by the way the book has been trimmed and condensed in order to fit a movie-length running time, is rather like watching a three-hour trailer for some other movie, or series of movies, yet to be made.
The directors have more success with a gimmick of their own: Each of the six stories reuses cast members from the other tales. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Hugh Grant and Jim Sturgess all appear in multiple roles, often in heavy makeup that changes their race or even gender. It's a neat trick that showcases the range of all of the film's performers while reinforcing the movie's motifs of oneness and interconnection.
The bold-faced names help ground what might seem on the surface to be an unusual production in something a bit more familiar. Yet despite its unusual concept, the movie, at its core, is surprisingly conventional: an adventure, awakening and understanding in three acts that simply follows six protagonists instead of one. The Wachowskis have done their best to run Mr. Mitchell's beautifully woven novel through the Hollywood formula machine, and robbed the original of what made it great. It's a movie about transcending boundaries that fails to transcend its own source material — and a story about the interconnection of all souls that doesn't have one.
TITLE: "Cloud Atlas"
CREDITS: Written and directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer
RUNNING TIME: 172 minutes
RATING: R for graphic violence, nudity, language
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS