“If God created all this then why do we have the right to change it?” – Adam Ewing, Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas, adapted from a difficult novel by David Mitchell, emerges as the most multi-dimensional film of many lately to promote the benefits of community and the disastrous effects of being incarcerated by subordination. At once infuriating and captivating, Cloud Atlas sets out to defy narrative conventions. It succeeds at being a cinematic tapestry to be explored rather than digested. Yet, the main message – “We are all drops that make up the ocean.” – feels too small to justify such a complicated movie. On first viewing, the aspirations for something grander are there, but the base of what’s being explored comes up limp.
Made up of six stories loosely sewn together, Cloud Atlas jumps time, space, and solar systems. An Englishman, Adam Ewing, remains on a pacific island awaiting his ship’s repair. While there, he befriends a poorly treated slave. In 1975, a journalist stumbles on the tip that could bring down an oil tycoon, but may take her life in the process. In futuristic Korea, an enslaved robot named Sonmi-451 tries to escape a life tethered to “consumers.” On a planet in the distant future, a man tries to survive the remnants of a technologically advanced civilization and build a family. A young man at Harvard, with a hidden personal life, writes a timeless musical composition before committing suicide. Finally, an elderly publisher profits from a bizarre murder at the hands of his best selling author. The connections between these stories are as obvious as comet-shaped birthmarks shared by all and as subtle as works of art that exist from one time period to another.
For those not ready to submit to a challenging work, Cloud Atlas will inevitably draw ire as being lots of philosophical mumbo jumbo. While I somewhat agree, sometimes a work of grandiose vision can be satisfying just because of the extents it’s willing to go. Just like the lives in the picture, not every choice in Cloud Atlas adds up to an enjoyable end, but I found myself grateful the creators were willing to try. The sequence in Korea acts as the most enjoyable story and stands out as the best summation of all the ideas the film tries to get at. However, pleasures in this film don’t come from analyzing the strands, but enduring the overall quilt they build.
From a purely visual and aural perspective, the film takes the viewer on a riveting ride. Clever graphic matches bridge stories, pulse-racing chase scenes pay homage to classic adventure fiction, and breathtaking visual effects propel scenes forward with brisk excitement. With a score that runs parallel to the action, this film acts on more layers than one coherent viewing can entirely make sense of. Cloud Atlas contains characters being overtaken by greed and the need for technologically-aided control. Like Avatar, the technology of the filmmaking acts as both a statement and a tool for making its points.
While the visual effects are state-of-the-art, the practical effects ground picture by giving it a homemade feel. Cloud Atlas is a textbook in makeup design. Not only do actors play multiple parts that make them almost indistinguishable, but also the characters have varied looks conjured from detailed imagination. Likewise, the production design seamlessly merges historical details with nature, outer space, and distant time periods all conceived from scratch.
Created by filmmakers (The Wachowskis + Tom Tykwer) who’ve developed substantial fanboy followings, Cloud Atlas contains an abundance of indulgent ideas for loyalists to chew on. But the stories, all compelling on their own, never completely connect in a concrete way. On a spiritual level, the threads are bound by significant concepts of togetherness, kindness, and the notion that humans are not the ones who can decide what gets controlled in this world. Cloud Atlas is ultimately too overlong to be appreciated as entertainment and too indecisive as a philosophical study. Yet, there’s a pleasure in sitting back and letting the film absorb you.
Case studies could be written about Cloud Atlas. It’s a feast of concepts cradled inside complex filmmaking techniques. Even the shortcomings of the picture offer complexities. The script fails to hold the weight of the monumental cinematic vision. However, the music, editing, makeup, and all other craft, make for quite a ride. More viewings are in order as this kind of film isn’t watched so much as grappled. [B]