Someone, I forget who, said that it’s the job of the storyteller to hold a mirror up to the audience, and to use their story to give their audience a greater understanding of the human experience. I may not remember who said it, but I can guarantee that the three directors of Cloud Atlas, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, could tell you who said it. It seems like their massively ambitious undertaking of a film seeks to do exactly that. In an era as diverse and yet divided as ours, it can be difficult to look at someone who lives in a different part of the world and draw parallels between their lives and ours. It can be even more difficult for us to do the same with people who lived in different time periods than us. This film takes six different stories from six different eras, from the 1800s to the distant, post-apocalyptic future, and seeks to remove the boundaries of time and space that seek to keep them separate.
If this sounds like a challenging goal, that’s because it is. It would be impossible to attempt a film of such scale and artistic ambition and please every potential audience member in the process. Not surprisingly, this is one of the most polarizing films that Hollywood has seen in years. Make no mistake, this is a challenging film to watch, and it’s one that tends to elicit some strong reactions from people, be they positive or negative. I’ve found, though, that the people who tend to react poorly to this movie are the kind of people who try in vain to keep track of every logistical detail of every single story at the same time. These are likely the kind of people who like to try to keep predicting what’s going to happen next in a film. If you are someone who typically does this, know that, if you try to do the same thing during Cloud Atlas, you will most likely be setting yourself up for failure. Instead, you need to turn off that little voice inside your head and trust that the filmmakers are talented enough to get you the information you need. And they do, provided that you do your job as an audience member and pay attention throughout.
At first, it might seem like the movie keeps jumping around from story to story at random, and it’s difficult to see what these stories have in common besides the actors who play various parts and the recurring appearance of a shooting-star-shaped birthmark. As the masterful editing juggles these various plots, however, you start to see various through lines emerge. Various themes keep re-emerging, whether they are actual lines like “the weak are meat and the strong do eat”, or simply common elements like forbidden love, oppression versus freedom, or powerful secrets. As these common themes are explored, you’ll find that these are the commonalities that don’t just unite all six stories, but instead stitch together the fabric of human existence. Subsequently, actors in these stories begin to represent archetypes rather than characters. Jim Sturgess represents the young idealist revolutionary, whereas Doona Bae represents the herald of change, and Hugo Weaving represents the violence of oppression while Hugh Grant often represents the powerful oppressor who makes it happen (and the list goes on, of course). These are not people you see on the screen, but rather different incarnations of the same essence, which some might argue makes a case for reincarnation of souls and so on.
The film is not without its faults. The film often finds itself running into linguistic difficulties. There were a handful of times where I found myself wishing that I had subtitles there to assist me. There are other times where actors simply run into difficulty portraying someone of a different background. Tom Hanks, for instance, isn’t the most convincing Cockney gangster in the world. Doona Bae, a South Korean actress, isn’t exactly convincing when she tries to portray a Mexican-American woman in San Francisco. But these sorts of issues would be expected when trying to get such a diverse cast to play an even more diverse pantheon of characters. Luckily, this film has world class makeup going for it. There are several moments where you’ll be in the middle of watching a story and suddenly recognize the actor that you’ve been watching for ten minutes already. This is, of course, partially due to makeup, and also due to performances and direction. They fall flat at scattered instances, but when they work, they really work.
All in all, I think you should definitely give Cloud Atlas a viewing, if not several. It may not be a perfect film, but it is far more ambitious and original than anything that Hollywood has done in the last few years. Furthermore, it’s one of those films that you find yourself thinking about long after it’s finished. It is for this reason that I consider it a success. It explores not just the common themes that unite stories and people across generations, but it also speaks to the transformative effect that a story can have on the people who experience it.
-RJ (didn’t read the book)
I forget how I decided to pick up the book, but I’m glad I did. I’m pretty sure I ran across it while bumping around Borders and the cover happened to jump out at me. At the beginning, the book was pleasant enough, but it soon became laborious, and then it became burdensome. There was SO MUCH PLOT that was akin to drinking from a fire hydrant – you’re hit with so much and only taken in a little. Don’t get me wrong, the book was pretty good, but it’s harder to glean meaning from 6 different interwoven plots, especially upon first read.
Which is why I appreciated the movie more than the book. I remember the key elements from the novel and all of them made appearances in the movie, and I also enjoyed the editing. In fact, I prefer the editing of the story in the movie to that of the book – the stories are more interwoven so it’s easier to detect similarities between the generations of people than the pyramidal plot set up in the novel, and in this way I feel that the purpose of the story is more easily conveyed.
Even with the movie moving quickly, it still ended up being over 2.5 hours. That’s nothing compared to Titanic, but it was still an effort to watch. At one point near the end, my eyes were watering, though whether that was from IMAX or the length is anyone’s guess. However, I think this is the one drawback of the film. I genuinely enjoyed it and would like to watch it again.
So in short, I would say the movie did an amazing job while the novel fell a little flatter, but it’s not due to poor writing style or terrible plot. The movie was able to condense what I felt was a lot of information in a way that allowed me to still artistically appreciate the purpose of the story.
-Will (read the book)