By: Daniel Reynolds
I went into Cloud Atlas prepared for anything. I had seen the trailer (which only evinces a vague karmic, space aged philosophy and some wild action scenes), and I knew it was based on a book by David Mitchell (which I have yet to read). The film appeared to be about everything, which meant it could collapse it to a messy nothing. I felt I was taking a chance, willfully taking a step into a void. In retrospect, this may be the best way to approach Cloud Atlas.
A film of this scale, scope and daring can only be made by the heartiest of directors. Or, as is the case here, by three of them at once. Using a divide and conquer approach, the Wachowskis (Bound, Speed Racer, and some film called The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) have tackled a story that deals with dozens of characters, multiple time periods and various countries. Does it overwhelm? Cohere? Well, like any noble-minded journey into the unknown, there are some missteps but then, of course, the mistakes and folly of any trip are part of the fun.
Having now seen the film I realize that to discuss the plot of Cloud Atlas is impossible. In fact, the opening of the film appears, almost by design, to set the audience off into a world of confusion. Characters pop up here and there, the action shifts from a plantation, to a nuclear power plant, to a futuristic neo-Seoul, to a stone age-like valley to elsewhere (and back again). The effect is dizzying as the narrative strands swirl in every direction. To anchor the audience, the directors have cast the same actors in different roles and in different time periods, so we see Tom Hanks as a doctor at sea, as a nuclear physicist, a bedeviled caveman and, most distressingly (and thankfully, briefly) as some sort of goateed British thug. Generally, this device works and subtly reinforces a connection between the various story elements when no obvious connection exists. Of course, this also means you end up having to see Jim Sturgess made up to look vaguely Korean, but as I mentioned, missteps. Filling out the main cast there is also Ben Whishaw as a struggling composer, Halle Berry as an investigative journalist, Jim Broadbent as a trouble making literary agent, and the always welcome Keith David. It will reassure you to know that no matter the era, Hugo Weaving still plays the villain. So yeah, that’s a comfort.
OK, so what’s the point? Well, in the usual Wachowski fashion, we get characters who end up talking very specifically about certain philosophical views and the tone of the film bounces back and forth between being thematically basic (everything is connected!) to maddeningly unclear. We get only the briefest glimpses of some of these characters and while some of their struggles are instantly familiar, there is a lot to take in. That being said, as the film progresses, gradually the narrative fog lifts and the disparate stories build a certain momentum. Simply, we began to care about these characters’s fates and the unification of their struggle in a vast universe. Sure, the karma of good and bad characters is never quite clearly explained (Hanks is bad in one period, good in another, etc.) but as the propulsive splendor of the film is unveiled this begins to matter less and less.
Cloud Atlas had me thinking about it’s most closely related antecedent, the similar labour of love from Darren Aronofsky, The Fountain. While that older film – a tremendous movie, in my opinion – does not attempt as many storylines, it does attempt to quantify the notion of an endlessly looping, connected, karmic sense of reality; with actions of the past dictating the present and leading to the future. The similarities don’t entirely end there, however. Both films also exhibit a certain bravery or earnestness, an acceptance that what they are showing and willing to risk may be spat upon for its refusal to wink knowingly, to acknowledge the charts laid out before.
The Wachowskis (and Twyker too, I suppose) have largely been looked down upon as of late. The films of these three (from the later Matrix movies, to Speed Racer, Perfume and The International, etc.) have shown a gradual decline in critical and popular stature. That they’ve spent years assembling a movie based on a book that was said to be unfilmable, putting in some of their own money to fund the project, and delivering a production that is at once both epic and intimate, bold and ridiculous, is a testament to their willingness to venture further in shaping a hopeful vision. Yes, their film is a huge sprawl, a mess and a marvel, but when you’re trying to catalog the extent of human understanding and universal connection, sometimes even a map won’t help you.