In Cloud Atlas, opening today, six different stories in different time periods are woven together to create a thrilling composite story about liberation and revelation. Fittingly, how you wind up feeling about Cloud Atlas depends very much on your vantage point: the individual pieces, when you pull them out separately, are sometimes quite dismal. But when you pull back and look at the movie as a whole, it's dazzling, and ultimately pretty satisfying.
It's just one more layer of meta in a film that's jammed full of meta: the film's deeply flawed greatness is an extension of its themes of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. And the world being the sum of good and bad choices. In any case, this is one film you should see for yourself.
With any film, there are two versions: the version you watch at the time, and the version that reconstitutes itself in your mind the next day when you're in the shower. We tend to judge films based on the latter, hot-shower version. Sometimes it takes a few days after you see a film for an overall verdict to crystallize in your mind, with all the pieces falling into place. But Cloud Atlas seems to be a special case: I saw it days ago, and it's still refusing to come into focus, although I feel as though I mostly liked it a lot.
So, as you probably know, Cloud Atlas is the movie adaptation of the acclaimed novel by David Mitchell, which combines six stories from different time periods and different genres. Just interweaving six stories, ranging from the 19th century to the far future, appears not to have been enough of a challenge for the film's three directors (two Wachowskis, plus Tom Tykwer). To add an extra layer of insanity, they decided to have their marquee actors, like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, play different roles in each time period, often wearing cartoonishly fake-looking makeup and face-putty. Distracting? Ludicrous? Often quite problematic? Why, yes.
In fact, the result is so self-indulgent, it feels as though it's skating along the edge of total disaster. And yet, it's also an enthralling, uplifting movie in which six different stories propel you forward and keep you guessing and hoping, even as they raise the sort of philosophical ideas the Wachowskis have become famous for.
So briefly, here are the six stories that Cloud Atlas weaves together:
1) In 1850, Adam Ewing visits a pacific island and then sails home to San Francisco, coping along the way with an escaped slave and a deadly tropical brain parasite that his friend Henry is trying to cure him of.
2) In the 1930s, a young musician named Robert Frobisher goes to work for a famous composer as his "amanuensis."
3) In 1974, a cub reporter named Luisa Rey gets drawn into a murder mystery and an apparent cover-up at a local nuclear power plant
4) In 2012, an elderly publisher has a stroke of good fortune that quickly turns nasty, and he's forced to go on the run
5) In a dystopian near future, a cloned "fabricant" works as a waitress in a nightmarish diner, only to start thinking for herself
6) In the post-apocalyptic far future, a primitive islander tries to decide whether to help a woman from a super-advanced society to reach a forbidden mountain
As in Mitchell's novel, each of these stories is tied together in a few different ways. In each one, somebody is reading or watching a version of the previous one. (So for example, Robert Frobisher reads Adam Ewing's journal.) And also, one person in each timeline appears to have a comet-shaped birthmark, opening up the vague possibility that this is a story about reincarnation. And there are random other links, including thematic ties and the fact that the composer in the 1930s seems to dream about the fabricant's near-future diner.
But Mitchell settles on an elegant, symmetrical "nesting dolls" structure, where the book moves forwards in time to the post-apocalyptic story, and then backwards in time to the 1850 story again. In the film version, the Wachowskis and Tykwer abandon that symmetry for more of a "mosaic" approach, using lots of cinematic tricks to juxtapose and even superimpose the different eras of the story. And that much more complex, challenging structure is central to the meaning of the film version.
As Mitchell explained in the Wall Street Journal last week:
This "there-and-back" structure always struck me as unfilmable, which is why I believed that "Cloud Atlas" would never be made into a movie. I was half right. It has now been adapted for the screen, but as a sort of pointillist mosaic: We stay in each of the six worlds just long enough for the hook to be sunk in, and from then on the film darts from world to world at the speed of a plate-spinner, revisiting each narrative for long enough to propel it forward.
Mitchell's novel plays with intertexuality, the idea of each story influencing the next in fairly subtle ways. (And then the "reincarnation" thing is thrown in as another form of connection, without necessarily ever quite making sense. This discussion of the novel over at the AV Club is a must-read, especially Tasha Robinson's comments.)
The movie version, by contrast, is able to get away with some zig-zaggy intercutting between the different segments, or putting the dialogue from one over a scene from another. And this allows the Wachowskis and Tykwer to create connections between the different stories that aren't based on actual links between the characters or stories. In the process, they create extra layers of meaning, and bring out the theme of liberation, and the individual's struggle against the crushing social order.
The biggest connection between these disparate stories, the film suggests, is that they're all part of an eternal battle for freedom, against those who would enslave and destroy anybody who's seen as weak or vulnerable. The moral messages that are present in the novel get brought out and heightened in the film — sometimes to the point where you get flashbacks to the tedious "Colonel Sanders lectures us about free will" sequence from The Matrix Reloaded. Like much else about Cloud Atlas, the film's messages are simultaneously wonderful and kind of awful.
Other links between the stories are also artfully brought out and heightened, like the fact that many of them have to do with cannibalism, in one way or another. (There's a "Soylent Green" joke, just like in the book.) And the clash between civilization and the savage, which runs through the book, gets highlighted a bit more as well.
So this is a story about a bunch of stories, which shows how stories tend to reverberate and reshape each other. Which makes it especially interesting that the Wachowskis and Tykwer chose to heighten the artificiality by reusing actors and covering them with silly putty. It's almost as if they want you to be constantly aware of how fake all this is, to throw you out of the story again and again. Not only are you playing "spot that actor" throughout the film — which loathsome creep will Hugh Grant be in this time period? — but you're gawping at the ludicrously bad makeovers these actors get.
Actors like Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving make a point of playing different races and genders throughout the film, and on one level you're probably supposed to think this is some kind of loosey goosey message about how we're all just genderless, featureless souls in habiting different fleshy shells. But at the same time, it's pretty clear that not every character played by Hugo Weaving is supposed to be a reincarnation of the same soul. (At least, not if you're supposed to take the comet thing seriously.) And this doesn't play like "versatile actors cross race and gender lines, to inhabit different physicalities." Rather, it plays like pantomime — most notably when Weaving is turned into a burly, authoritarian nurse in the 2012 segment. Or maybe minstrelsy. The whole thing feels deliberately tasteless, especially when the white people all wear blobs of goop on their faces to make them Asian in the "Neo-Seoul" segment. It's a dystopian future where every single Asian dude looks like he's wearing a mask. And yet, it's also so fake-looking and weird that it comes to feel like just another strange feature of an excessively strange film.
Actually, the strangest thing in the film might be Tom Hanks, who delivers one of the most balls-out-the-window performances I've seen in a long time. William Shatner will watch the way Hanks delivers lines like, "The weak are meat, and the strong do eat," and feel a deep sense of inadequacy. And playing a post-apocalyptic tribesman, Hanks aims for the cheap seats in a different way. Hanks seems to have decided this is his chance to prove that he's capable of being just as bonkers as Johnny Depp.
Things like Hanks' performance and the aforementioned "face goop makes you Asian" thing would drag almost any other movie down into the toilet. And it's entirely possible that for many people, they will. But despite being unable to get away from these glaring flaws, I still wound up feeling as though Cloud Atlas is, as a whole, a genuinely great movie.
I haven't even mentioned how stylish a lot of it is. Even while you're gawping at the weird makeup, you're also gasping at some terrific production design and a lot of beautifully filmed action. Viewed purely as an action movie, or as a set of stories about characters who are on different journeys, Cloud Atlas is a great thrillride. And it earns a lot of goodwill for having a powerful ending, that actually makes all of its messages about the individual and society feel profound rather than trite. I walked out of this film feeling as though I'd seen a great film that included some ultra-questionable decisions, and I still feel that way.
Here's the best way to describe Cloud Atlas that I've come up with: it's like one of those gourmet meals that includes really pungent French cheese and fresh goat brains and stuff. But if you can deal with some really wrong flavors, the aftertaste might actually leave you really super happy that you ate the whole thing.