I walked into Cloud Atlas expecting either an exquisitely weaved masterpiece or a glorified Norbit (I secretly hoped for the latter when I discovered that the film’s leads, like Eddie Murphy in his magnum opus, play as many as eight different roles). I left the film feeling that it fell somewhere in between those extremes. On one hand, I have a great deal of respect for filmmakers that would have the cojones to make a film this ambitious, and it is heartening to see compassion, empathy and hope enshrined so unambiguously — an approach that modern films, and indeed, modern society at large, are often reluctant to embrace. On the other hand, the intertwined storylines often feel confusing and disjointed, while the time- and gender-bending multiple roles of the ensemble often border on farcical. The film, then, is a bold piece of entertainment that works best when appreciated for its triumphs and accepted for the failures that inevitably accompany a project of this scope and sincerity.
In order to create Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer cut, spliced and re-worked David Mitchell’s novel, on which the film was based, and which, unsurprisingly, has often been declared “un-filmable.” The result of this valiant effort is sprawling in every sense of the word. It is a behemoth purely in terms of length, as it clocks in at just over 172 minutes. Its six storylines are spread across an equal number of centuries. Using liberal crosscutting, the film darts between a dystopian science-fiction epic; a ’70s style mystery thriller; a tribal, post-apocalyptic fantasy; a tender, romantic tragedy; a moving saga of forbidden friendship; and a whimsical yarn about an aging publisher trapped in a nursing home. The most astounding thing about all this is that the film actually congeals by the end.
As Cloud Atlas comes to a close, it is hard not to admire the film’s refusal to compromise its messages of hope, freedom and eternal recurrence, even if it is sometimes too keen on asserting the profundity of its ideas. Although the film is incredibly complex and detailed — so much so, in fact, that a decent summary is next to impossible — the overall message is in no way befuddling or existential. On the contrary, much of the plot’s complexity is unnecessary for a solid understanding of the film’s major themes.
One of the most significant facets of the plot is the way that the various storylines interact. The journal of a sickly young lawyer from 1839 finds its way into the hands of a musician in 1930, who is inspired by the author’s passion; the musician’s work, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” inspires a muckraking journalist in the 1970s to uncover a conspiracy; the journalist’s young friend pens a novel on the plot’s uncovery, which lands on the desk of a publisher in 2012; the publisher’s escape from a restrictive nursing home spawns a movie on the subject that inspires a servile clone to escape the shackles of her oppression; and this clone becomes a deity in the eyes of a post-apocalyptic, neo-tribal community in future Hawaii. This connective conceit traces the ripple effect of a single historical moment across time and space in an attempt by the filmmakers to underscore their message that we are not alone, and that our actions have profound consequences. In this case, their strategy is extremely effective: Their point is complex without being convoluted.
But at other times, the film’s attempts to illustrate these cosmic connections lean closer to failure. The use of the same actors for multiple roles is an interesting idea in theory, as it allows the filmmakers to draw parallels between the various storylines in a way that would seem to illustrate the universality of freedom and oppression, love and hate and, of course, life and death. But, in practice, though this strategy is sometimes effective, particularly in Tom Hanks’s iterations in the various time periods, most of the time, the characters’ multiple roles are confusing at best and downright creepy at worst (see: Halle Berry as a wrinkling, male doctor; see: Hugh Grant as an old man who looks like he’s wearing another man’s skin à la Leatherface).
Looked at solely in terms of each isolated narrative, furthermore, the quality of Cloud Atlas is as variable as the locales and time periods in which the film takes place. The story of Son-Mi 451 (Doona Bae), the clone who rebels against her creators, is a powerfully moving tale that forcefully presents the power of freedom in the face of despotism. And the film’s portrayal of Lana’s (Halle Berry) efforts to reveal a massive conspiracy is gripping, if a bit clichéd. But other narratives don’t fare as well, particularly the drawn out journey of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) across the ocean; despite strong performances in this section, very little of interest actually happens.
There are other flaws I could point out in this film. But I am willing to be forgiving of its transgressions because in spite of its failures, Cloud Atlas manages to provide both the entertainment value of a Hollywood blockbuster and the structural ingenuity of an independent film. Its steadfast sense of morality is a refreshing contrast to the idea of the “moral wasteland” that seems to preoccupy the minds of modern filmmakers. For all the commotion that surrounded the release of this film, reports of Atlas’ complexity are greatly exaggerated. Though it may open in a haze of confusion, it ultimately funnels down to a message that is simple and humanistic. This message is best put in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., paraphrasing the abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”