Cloud Atlas is an interconnected tapestry of six stories told through varying mediums; a journal, love letters, a novel, a memoir, a sextet for orchestra, and the original medium of stories, the spoken word. It begins at the end, many years in the distant future, with a storyteller, as all stories do. They must be told by someone after all. The Wachowski’s, Lana and Andy, along with Tom Tykwer, took an adapted screenplay from David Mitchell’s novel by the same name and endeavored to create one of the most bold cinematic ventures undertaken in many years, and quite possibly one of the most bold ever.
The stories begin in the year 1849, in the slave trading Chatham Islands with an unlikely friendship forged between Autua, a once free now enslaved stowaway on a Pacific passage and an American attorney, Adam Ewing, deathly ill and being treated by the scandalously devious “Dr.” Henry Goose (Tom Hanks in heavy prosthetic at his most unlikable, taking Machiavelli to heart) and flits to and fro like a butterfly; from the post-Nixon nuke obsessed 1980’s of Luisa Rey, and back to the enduring love between Rufus Sixsmith and his doomed lover Robert Frobisher, forbidden to express the love they have for one another in the pre-war Europe of 1931, not to mention the story of the “fabricant”, Somni 451, built to be a server in a diner of a future world ruled by corporate interests, who finds her freedom in ideas and love and an aging literary agent who plots his freedom and ultimately his memoir…these stories are each quite lovely, beautiful in the complexity with which each one engages the experience of the last. It is an illustration of that concept, the illusive nature of small actions creating a ripple across time, the butterfly effect. All things lead to karmic release. Destiny resides in the outcome of seemingly innocuous acts of kindness and cruelty; it is an illustration of the human soul’s struggle to be free from the binds that would hold us.
Cloud Atlas‘s film adaptation could have been great. The stories are there. The Wachowski’s with Tykwer created a gorgeous futuristic world in Neo Seoul as they are wont to do with futuristic world’s…but the moralizing proved to be a bit of a tough sell for the unsympathetic political climate of it’s cinematic release in 2012. The multi-tiered stories were lost on audiences, like the bones of the old worlds left behind in the post apocalyptic Hawaiian landscapes of the film’s furthest reach on earth in the year 2346, they were too covered up to understand. Audiences want the satisfaction of tidy plots with recognizable morals. In a landscape inundated with sound bites, no one has the attention span to sift through an archaeological dig of a film. The actors did their best, and in spite of having to create a multitude of different personas to occupy a single film, each did so with aplomb. Audiences weren’t ready for it. This is not an easy film to grasp outright. There is no cheap meat that satisfies but does not nourish. It commands every ounce of attention that a viewer can summon. People like to refill sodas and take bathroom breaks in the cinema.
I almost fell in love with Cloud Atlas the first time, when I watched it on Blu-ray, in spite of some of the transparency in the moralistic nature of the film. I think I would fall in love with it, or at least with particular elements of it, if I watched it more than once. It’s that kind of film. It draws you in so close to the nature of its characters. In spite of the preachy quality of its message, whether you agree with it or not, a viewer can certainly appreciate the ideas of redemption and the healing nature of the passage of time; the notion that ultimately all things will come to rights in the end, through the small kindnesses we pay to each other and to ourselves.
Cloud Atlas is changeable. I think that it will be one of those rare cinematic gems that sparkle more brightly with each viewing, like the years that pass between one reading of a novel to the next. Experience shapes the interpretation and time changes what a single story can mean to us from one period in our lives to the next. I can’t think of many examples of the medium that accomplish this feat. It is a film that lends itself very well to at home viewing, provided one is thoroughly engaged, without distractions, and without prejudice.
It was a beautiful film and just as the mind tricks us into believing we see familiar flights of fancy floating in clouds, so too did this movie create an illusion; the suspension of the need for traditional narrative, the necessity of convincing oneself to acknowledge a single actor as a single protagonist. It gave the mind an opportunity to play with ideas. That may be the real message of the film. Sonmi 451, a human clone, played with ideas that would ultimately define a revolution,redeem humankind, and make her a beacon of hope in a bleak future. Watch the film and even if you don’t subscribe to the pontificating, greatly inspired by the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn who was sentenced to eight years in a Soviet prison camp for his novels but who ultimately won a Nobel prize for them, admire the ambition that it took to tell the stories. Perhaps it didn’t quite defy gravity when adapted to film. But it was pretty close.
As I say all of this, keep in mind: I have not read the novel. The film adaptation is one of those rare things that makes me not want to read it, so as not to ruin the illusion and the beauty that I experienced in the viewing. I know that my full judgement would rain from the clouds of literary criticism and, for just a moment, I want to enjoy fair wind and following sea. Dreams are visceral things and need room to burst.