Print Edition: November 7, 2012
One of the many perplexing things in Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas is the way every character, spread across six eras of this planet’s lifespan, is adamantly sure of what they know, see and do – and how this stands against intolerance and imprisonment.
If they’ve all reached the point where everything is understood, and either ascend to importance through art or history, or are in a position to teach future generations, why are all the stories so similar? Viewed from within, Cloud Atlas is a film that trembles with violent emotion, seeking to break boundaries and unleash wisdom. But from a more distant perspective, the film is interconnected repetition, a schematic of packaged sayings that resemble hope but fail to stick in the mind – it’s all been heard before. Everything is laid out clearly, from its crosscut time-date-stamped intro to its cumulative end. If the movie doesn’t deviate, or grow, from its seed of initial ideas, there also isn’t any entropy – Cloud Atlas is as strong, and every bit as weak, as it reaches its “conclusion.”
We often talk of not liking movies that manipulate or force us one way or another (though all do), but Cloud Atlas is exceptional in this regard as it places its ideas forward, only to cycle them in sextet, reinforcing, reaffirming and never turning aside. Resembling a multi-veiled sermon, the narration that rises out of incident, proposing explanations of the inexplicable, or at least why it is inexplicable, will be more or less grating or grand depending on internal prejudices. This is a movie that is deeply concerned with community, yet it’s easy to see where divisions spread out from its surface.
Within the logic of the movie, it all fits quite neatly. Every action is invested with the importance of a landmark – the precise timing of an exact choice determines the unfolding (here rapidly shown and folded into similarly grand gestures) of lives and lives against time. The structure of the film has precedence in some of the conflation and irony-heavy doldrums of cinematic life-spinning (Manchevski, Iñárritu, Daldry) where coincidence somehow comes to mean meaning, but Cloud Atlas does differ: the best segments of Cloud Atlas are not where actions result in heavy emotion, but where feeling itself is streaked across the screen, becoming a kind of action. Yes, there are clean, emulsive chases and shootouts that will remind that the Wachowskis directed The Matrix and Tom Tykwer The International, but the one segment that remains strongest—despite its brevity and purpose mainly as set-up within the workings of the narrative—features a composer and a lover, not for each other.
The question of how to dictate—make real and readable—the song of the mind, and the unprintable repetition of mundane longing, though small against such a large backdrop, seem to be most important to what the Wachowskis are working towards. It’s not for nothing Bound, the Wachowskis’ first feature, where working together is life, suppression is subverted, and evil is so easily identifiable, is referenced and repeated, here.
What will be most notable for the majority is the repetition of the main actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving) across all timelines, with different roles for all. And it is here many of Cloud Atlas’s greatest perplexities arise, as with each costume change comes different shades of skin and gender, a source of consternation, or maybe just fatigue at cultural marginalization.
Such a reaction is warranted, and yet with it there is the knowledge that nothing about this display is shied away from and it is placed within a movie about acceptance. It’s not an excuse, but it is a comment, however clumsily handled, not that it is easy to step inside, replace and understand others through the transporting power of the movies or actors or anything like that, but of the meaninglessness of categorization, and the way disguises or exteriors cannot hide true natures. Cloud Atlas, here as at all points, seems simplistic to a fault and needlessly overreaching, yet the Sonmi segment where this is most pronounced contains some of the film’s most beautiful stops on its travelling narrative of awakening. The Wachowskis and Tykwer are so intent on showing everything, aligning with all that is dear, that it’s not so much a question of approval or dismissal or picking through what’s left, as it is trying to separate what’s true and the product of instinctual emotion – near impossible.
If Cloud Atlas’s plot were to be summarized, it could be put simply as restriction centralized into villainy, and goodness found in the simple act of giving a hand to another. It’s comprised of so many shared sci-fi components that for anyone familiar with the genre it will be, like the similarly interrogative Prometheus (belief) and Looper (the way actions impact others), attractive for its visuals, yet asks to be taken on the level of its ideas.
As Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil’s motif-laden, rush and exhale of a score lifts each prayer of understanding, one sticks out right from the start. As one character contemplates suicide, an adage is rejected, and it is said that rather than an act of cowardice, killing oneself is actually very brave. Even with the knowledge this is within a film where the constant renewal of life is relied upon, this strikes as a bit foolhardy, and deeply ignorant. This cannot be simply accepted, and then should not all of the sayings that the extra temporary beings of Cloud Atlas give voice to be similarly called into question? What Cloud Atlas feels like after one viewing is not a three-hour epic but an instant of forgetfulness, where a cascade of rewritten, yet recognizable tropes fall wonderfully into place, some sticking, others not. And it is populated by people sure of themselves, if only for in this moment, sure to fall back into “making the same mistakes” again but, for now, wholly committed to getting right what they believe is right this time. And it’s utterly incomplete.