Cloud Atlas is a movie with six stories in it. It is two hours and 44 minutes long. About two-thirds of the way in, during a part of the story looks like a 1970s action flick, Halle Berry, standing by a door on a sidewalk, turns towards the street and yells, “Joe!” For a moment, I forgot I was watching Cloud Atlas and thought that I was watching a 70s action flick.
Only one strangely magical moment, among many.
The big names on this film are the Walchowski Brothers (most famous for the Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). Whatever you might have thought about the last two Matrix movies (and I mostly thought, “Huh?”), The Matrix changed how I looked at movies. Cloud Atlas had the same impact.
An ensemble of top-shelf actors plays the leads in every story, repertory style. Here are your leads: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Huge Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Keith David, David Gyasi, James D’Arcy. With the possible exception of Doona Bae, you would recognize every one of those actors, but you might not recognize them in every role. Bae is a South Korean actor who starred in the largest-grossing South Korean film of all time (according to Wikipedia) the horror film The Host. In Cloud Atlas she plays a clone in a corporatist future, a “fabricant” designed to work in a futuristic fast food joint, who becomes an unlikely folk hero.
The six stories, at first, don’t seem to be related. They spread out across continents, cultures and eras:
- In a post-apocalyptic future, Zachary comes to grips with an act of cowardice, and faces down Old Georgie, a mythical devil-figure from his culture, as he helps a foreign woman explore the ruins of the “Old ‘Uns” and evade cannibalistic raiders.
- In 1849, in the South Pacific, Adam Ewing, a naïve American lawyer, must cope with an escaped slave stowaway, a drunken sea captain and a strange English doctor.
- Robert Frobisher loves only two things in the world; music, and fellow Cambridge student Rufus Sixsmith. It’s the 1930s and Frobisher, who has cynically hired himself out as a music clerk to an aging composer of great renown, struggles to retain authorship of his symphony The Cloud Atlas Sextet, which Vyvyan Ayrs is claiming as his own.
- Luisa Rey, a fledgling journalist, struggles to uncover the truth about a nuclear power plant in the early 1970s, as she searches for a report written by Dr Rufus Sixsmith.
- In our present, Timothy Cavendish, a vanity publisher in Britain, is tricked into a rest home by his vindictive brother, and must decide whether to escape or accept his fate.
- In a corporate, hi-tech future, Sonmi 451 is taken from the Papa Song’s restaurant where she and many other “fabricants” act as servers. She discovers the truth about her world and about herself, and that truth marks her for destruction.
The connections between these characters and these stories is not immediately obvious, and the film leaps about in time, following each tale based more or less on the theme and on the dramatic arc; thus, three stories will rise into a climax at the same time. Often, on a dramatic or suspenseful note, one story will drop out of rotation for a cycle, increasing the tension. (Did she really drown in that car?) Certainly we are made aware that each primary character, even the “fabricant,” has a strange birthmark, but these people are clearly not related by blood. Are they reincarnations? Or is something else going on?
The film is beautiful, and each story has the settings, props, pacing and speech of its time and type. As I said, for a moment there I was truly watching a 70’s action flick, not a meta-fictional meditation on the nature of connection. Sonmi 451’s future is terrifying and beautiful, with fight scenes and chase scenes rivaling The Matrix. In one sequence, Sonmi and her rescuer Hae-Joo Chang walk across a narrow metal bridge he has just thrown across the space between two buildings, fifty stories up. From the window behind them the police begin shooting, and Hae-Joo and Sonmi engage in a martial-arts pas de deus; leaping, spinning and swirling. I’d watch the movie again just to see that sequence.
Sonmi 451 and Adam are the two characters with the most growth. Once she has been freed, Sonmi tells the general who is the leader of the resistance, “I was not genomed to alter reality.” No one who ever led a revolution was, he tells her. Adam is forced to confront the reality of slavery and his part in it, even though that part has been a passive one. For Zachary the struggle is personal. Whether Old Georgie is an actual supernatural creature or a psychological archetype, he represents selfishness, distrust, and isolation, while the woman from the more advanced society, Merowyn, represents, literally, the future. While Timothy Cavendish’s story is mostly comical, he must make a decision to risk love.
So, is something else going on? Yes. Adam Ewing kept a journal of his trip, and that journal was published as The Pacific Journal, a book Frobisher reads to alleviate his boredom in the house of Vyvyan Ayrs. Luisa discovers Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith, and reads them, and goes so far as to track down an LP of his symphony. Cavendish leafs through an unpublished novel called Half-Lives, a Luisa Rey Mystery, while he is riding the train, and a cleaned-up version of his tale, released as a movie, provides the clones in Sonmi’s world with a catch phrase for freedom and respect. Sonmi’s story will last far longer in history than she can ever imagine.
I think this is movie worth seeing in a theater, on a big screen in the dark, because it is so beautiful. At heart, though, the stories are actually intimate stories about people. While the movie has a happy ending, not everyone’s story does.
It is perfect? Not for me, not quite. While I got a kick out of the men-in-drag aspects of the Timothy Cavendish tale (in the best tradition of Shakespeare and Boy Scout summer camps) it was slightly overdone, and I think the directors would have done better to hire one more actor, rather than make one of their repertoire wear pale makeup and bad blue contact lenses while playing the role of Tilda at the very end. This is a quibble. I also wondered why the Old ‘Uns had put a giant metal artichoke on the top of Muana Kea. I mean yes, it’s explained, but come on, people, it’s an artichoke. Having said that, I came out of the theater dazed. There is a lot to process, a lot of absorb. What’s it about? It’s about whether the statement “The weak are meat and the strong do eat” is the true human ethic. It’s about connection. It’s about the choices we make and their consequences. And it’s about using film in a different way, to tell a complex and interior story with great beauty and action.