At the risk of inviting hoots of derision, and allowing for the fact that it is not my favourite genre, I firmly believe that Cloud Atlas is the greatest sci fi film of all time. I will explain why.
But first let me go back and talk about the book on which it is based, and the changes the film makers have made. David Mitchell's novel has been described as being like a Russian doll. It starts in the Pacific in 1849, moves to France (Edinburgh in the film) in 1936, then California in 1973, the UK now, the future in 2144, and finally After The Fall, at an unspecified date in the future. Each section follows chronologically on from the last until we get to Part 6, which is when we go back to where we left off in Part 5, then 4 and so on, back to the very first story. It's a very effective technique setting up a series of cliffhangers before everything is moreorless resolved in the end.
When I read the book, I was aware that a film was being made, and I did find myself thinking, 'well good luck with that,' little knowing that two very smart decisions had been made. First, the film script does not follow the linear narrative of the book. Instead, we follow all six stories intercut with each other; and here is where the second crucial decision was made. Rather than casting different actors for each of the different stories, the same actors are used over and over, simply playing different roles.
The advantages are obvious. You save money; but more importantly, you establish an obvious link between the different eras, and since the point of the film is to emphasise the idea that we are all connected through time, you're halfway there. Of course, there are drawbacks too. It involves making black actors white, old actors young, and all manner of improbable facial makeup collisions. And you know what? It didn't bother me in the slightest (I know some critics hate that). I think it's imaginative, well executed and creates a lot of entertainment for the audience.
I don't often see a film with 1400 people, most of whom have queued for hours to see a new film, and they may be more willing to love it than any old multiplex audience. But the fact is, not one left, we all laughed as well as thrilled, and everyone applauded at the end, including me. I loved the fact that the three directors (Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana – formerly Larry – Wachowski) have taken on such a huge project and tackled it with verve, wit and panache. There are dazzling digital fight scenes, foot chases, comedy sequences, and binding it all together a system of editing that keeps us engrossed at the same time as keeping us in the loop as to where we are.
A final word of praise for the actors. I'm not usually a Tom Hanks fan, but he is tremendous in this film, as villain, sleazy hotel proprietor, scientist with a conscience, thug and cowardly warrior. Alongside him, we find Halle Berry who is terrific, as well as Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess and others in smaller roles. Others may mock, but I am full of admiration.
OK, so let's talk about the Greatest Sci Fi Film Ever Made claim. My opening gambit is to ask what are the other contenders. I will deal with the obvious ones. Metropolis? Impressive, but hard work. 2001? Dated and pretentious. Blade Runner? Style over substance, full of rain and angst and Ford trying to look cool. Star Wars? I assume you're joking. The thing about most sci fi is that it takes itself so seriously. There are two basic sci fi messages. 1. We are all doomed and 2. We are all one. Cloud Atlas tends more to the latter, but rather than heading off down the Terence Malick path of woozy spirituality, CA is a lot of fun. You can argue that by virtue of the fact that 2/3 of the film is set in the present and past, that it's not really sci fi, but even so it shares many crucial features of that genre, and the Wachowski's previous work with The Matrix suggests that that's where their passion lies. Anyway, I make my claim and please feel free to repudiate it – after you have seen the film.
I read that David Mitchell, author of the original, said after he had seen the movie, that it was a rare example of a film being better than its source material. I thought he was being polite, but now I think he was right.