Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Twyker
Cloud Atlas Productions
If any film deserves to be evaluated on its own merits, and not those of its source material, Cloud Atlas is that film. Anyone expecting a comparison of this film to David Mitchell’s 2004 novel is reading the wrong review.
I put my foot down firmly in this regard because the very theme of Cloud Atlas centres not on the value of individual storytelling forms–not books, or diaries, or films, or music, or letters–but on the persistence of narrative itself: across lives and lifetimes, across centuries, across cultures and genres and various lived oppressions. To deride this film merely in relation to how well or poorly it translates Mitchell’s text to screen, therefore, is quite blatantly to miss the point.
What is the point? At 172 minutes, this film is unsurprisingly considered bloated by many, but I am surprised by how many people consider this film an enigma, too. It really isn’t. At its core are two very simple ideas: one, that we are all connected through our actions to the people who preceded us and to those who will succeed us, and two, that the overarching struggle of existence lies between those who would put up boundaries between human beings, and those who, simply by showing love and consideration for one another, begin to tear them down.
To this end, directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tim Twyker lead viewers through six eras, with six different social crises conforming to six different, interwoven storytelling modes.
First, there’s the 1849 tale of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a white American who saves Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway black slave, and is saved in turn from Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks). This allows Ewing to stand up to his father-in-law (Haskell Moore) and with wife Tilda (Doona Bae) join the Abolitionist cause.
This story emerges in part as a published diary in the hands of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a gay man in 1920s Britain who ties his fortune to renowned composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent), composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet before being extorted out of either his freedom or rightful critical acclaim, and thereafter pursues suicide.
Two threads of this tragic life carry into the next tale, a 1970s mystery/thriller. The first emerges in epistolary form, through the letters Frobisher wrote his broken-hearted lover, Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy); the second, through the uncanny recognition by journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) of the very rare Frobisher opus. Rey has a meaningful, if brief encounter with a man named Isaac Sachs (Tom Hanks) before working with Joe Napier (Keith David) to uncover the true goings-on at a nuclear power plant, as headed by Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant). Meanwhile, Bill Stokes (Hugo Weaving) tries to assassinate everyone.
The next story is a screwball comedy featuring a motley gang of elderly inmates at an illicit nursing home; one, a publisher named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) who was thrown into this institute by his vengeance-seeking brother Denholme (Hugh Grant), peripherally reviews the manuscript of a “Luisa Rey” mystery, as written by Rey’s kid neighbour Javier Gomez (now all grown up). When Cavendish escapes fiendish imprisonment under the ever-watchful eye of Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving), he writes a book about his experiences, with vision enough to hope it eventually becomes a film.
It does–and evidently does well enough in this medium to survive until at least the year 2144, when a fabricant named Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) is freed from a severe form of corporate slavery and wakened into the need for revolution by her rescuer, Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess). One piece of media that inspires Sonmi-451 is the film version of Cavendish’s adventure, and Sonmi-451 goes on to broadcast a message of revolution before being captured by the officers of Unanimity (including Hugo Weaving as Boardman Mephi). Before execution, she recites her story to an Archivist (James D’Arcy), who expresses incredulity about Sonmi’s suicide mission.
Sonmi’s message of revolution endures, however, and in the 24th century a superstitious tribe in a post-apocalyptic landscape regards her as no less than a god–though one who sadly does a poor job sparing them from sporadic attacks by cannibalistic warriors. One member of the peace-seeking tribe, Zachry (Tom Hanks, who bookends this film as an old man framing the whole narrative), is plagued by a personified presence of evil in his thoughts (Hugo Weaving), but when a Prescient named Meronym (Halle Berry) arrives in need of a guide, Zachry–as the last of six middling incarnations–is at last transformed into a hero.
In short, this is a complicated narrative, with many characters expressly played by the same actors to create a through-line of continuity and solidarity across multiple lifelines. (One might even argue that Hugo Weaving’s persistent placement as bad guy throughout all six eras allows The Matrix to be viewed as a tacit seventh story in the same vein.)
However, the intricacy of this set-up hardly makes the story’s aims opaque. For one, Sonmi-451 is a very clear nexus in the film–both plot-wise and thematically. In particular, her interaction with Boardman Mephi articulates the film’s point plainly (and artfully) enough; when Mephi states that there is a certain order in the world, which he will do everything to maintain, Sonmi-451 merely needs to look up to dispute his claim to such contrived hierarchies of human worth.
This gesture rings true to the other thematic nexus in this film–specifically, the 1849 travel narrative, in which Autua (the slave) declares Adam Ewing to be a friend for the simplest of reasons: because their eyes met in a moment of suffering. Because the act of creating a relationship–be it love or friendship or fraternal solidarity–is the one means by which the borders of human oppression inevitably break down.
Or so Cloud Atlas, at its best moments, seems to argue.
There are, however, some story-lines that struggle to further these same “movements” of relational triumph against diversity: Robert Frobisher’s violent rebellion against homophobic stigma is, quite problematically, suicide, while the opposition Timothy Cavendish faces is of a rather spurious and eclectic character, which makes it difficult to believe his narrative would survive well into the boorish consumerist landscape of Neo Seoul, 2144.
Without a doubt, these two stories are strung the least effectively to the next links in this film’s overarching chain–but the chain itself is diverse enough, and lively enough, to survive even such tenuous temporal associations. Indeed, in its totality, Cloud Atlas is part of a long line of works seeking a deeper, binding chord for human existence (works like the films Magnolia and The Tree of Life, the TV show Touch, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Memory of Whiteness come immediately to mind), and at the very least, this latest iteration on that theme will surely pick up costume and special effect nominations at next year’s Oscars. I would also not be surprised (if only on account of its highly acclaimed cast, in such a diversity of roles) if this sprawling epic manages more such accolades.
But what of its real legacy? Will the film version of Cloud Atlas win out as an iconic Everything-Is-Connected narrative? Will it create ripples throughout time, just as it promises each of us can do with all our actions–positive and negative alike? Or will the many intricacies of this film’s plot-line, the daunting length of the piece as a whole, and the general, feel-good high-mindedness of its vision ultimately work against its endurance over time?
I suppose we’ll just have to leave such verdicts to our future incarnations. Here’s hoping they aren’t all marauding cannibals.