Cloud Atlas: Unfilmable? Possibly. Actually Happening? Oh Yes.
For a work of fiction whose hydra-headed millennia-and-genre-hopping narrative begins at sea near 19th-century New Zealand and ends (um, spoiler alert, I guess, although the “end” in question happens around the halfway point) with a campfire story about man’s final descent into barbarism in post-apocalyptic far-future Hawaii, David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is actually pretty easy to follow, and even enjoy. It’s a page-turner that happens to be engineered like a particle accelerator; there are actual stories (and actual cliffhangers) within its tricky nesting-doll structure, as well as prose that riffs on Daniel Defoe, Martin Amis, and Philip K. Dick, but also Pelican Brief–era John Grisham, as if Mitchell were writing for the spinner rack in an interdimensional airport.
And while the book’s supposedly been called “unfilmable,” I can’t source that adjective back any further than a 2011 Hollywood Reporter story announcing the beginning of principal photography on the movie version, co-directed by Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer with Andy and Lana Wachowski (auteurs of the Matrix movies, and knowers of a thing or two about sending straight-up genre material into battle swagged out in the shades and trench coats of postmodernity). Now that movie — reportedly three hours long and made for $140 million — has a trailer, and the trailer has the one thing the book couldn’t give us: Tom Hanks! Multiple Tom Hankses, including a goateed gangster Hanks who resembles Ice-T cosplaying Will Ferrell from Night at the Roxbury! (Goatees = the darkest time line, always.)
Hanks-T shows up around the :49 mark of this five-minute mega-teaser, which also crams in glimpses of futuristic hover-bike chases, old people engaging in gleefully reckless driving, romantic cliches, colonial barbarism, regular barbarian barbarism, sweeping beauty shots of mountains and sunsets and steam trains, an aged composer dictating music heard in a dream to his amanuensis, Halle Berry reading old love letters in a caftan, exploding airplanes, Hugo Weaving with giant evil sideburns, lots of super-on-the-nose voice-over about fate and the universe and eternal recurrence, and a thunderously emotive M83 song pummeling you right in the tear-ducts. But wait, you’re thinking, all this stuff can’t be connected, can it? and then, boom, there’s a giant title card that says EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED.
Honestly, if you haven’t read the book, it probably looks less like a trailer for one movie and more like an Oscar-telecast Best Picture–nominees montage, albeit from a parallel-universe Oscar year where Babel took on Tree of Life and The Hours and lost to The Fountain. The involvement of the Wachowskis pretty much guarantees that, visually speaking, Cloud Atlas will make Life of Pi look like a flip-cam video of a cat falling off a bookshelf, but it’s hard to tell if it’ll hang together as anything but a bazillion-dollar jewel-box full of movie stars. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED is a tag line so great Syriana already got to it — but it isn’t a plot, and it doesn’t begin to hint at the many things Mitchell’s book was about. Although I guess the best line in the novel — “Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage” — was too long to fit on a poster.