Oh Lordy. There was bound to be one. The Master was a divisive film, but it doesn’t exist on the same plane of vitriol and adoration that Cloud Atlas is facing. For one, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is “mostly” adored by fans of his films and by fans of adult cinema in general, and for good reason. It is a masterpiece. Cloud Atlas, on the other hand, is split down the middle in terms of opinion—both public and critical.
That is because the movie is ridiculous. Yet, in spite of this fact, it is one of the best films of 2012. Based on one of the most ambitious novels in recent memory, by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas the film undoes its carefully put-together, yet insane narrative structure of nesting the 6 novellas within the novel in a matter that is palindrome-like. The first story stops half of the way through and then the second story begins. This pattern continues until the sixth story, where it is presented in completion. Then the second halves of the first five stories, in reverse order (fifth, fourth, third, second, and then the first ending the novel) unfold in a downward slide of emotion and pop-philosophy. The acclaimed novel earned most of its sentiment through its memorable characters and writing style that matches each of its time periods (1800s open sea, 1930s Europe, 1970s Reagan California, 2000s Britain, futuristic South Korea, and distant future post-apocalypse in Hawaii) and their genres (an sea-bound epistolary story, a tragic bedroom farce, a pulpy and unrealistic political thriller, a modern Brit-com, a heavy science-fiction story, and a post-apocalyptic adventure tale) perfectly. Characters from different stories meet. They all find the diaries, letters, memoirs, or films about the other characters in the other stories. The connections are everywhere in both theme and plot. The novel’s ambition never overcomes its own control of itself.
The movie is different, though. It adds many new complex layers to the book, and some of these layers infuriate viewers. The three directors, Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have changed the nesting structure into a film that constantly uses emotional and visual cues to cut to one of the other stories. Some viewers may be confused by the constant cutting, but I think it is a miracle that it works as well as it does[i]. It is possible to follow the story if you pay attention to the cues. Maybe a second viewing would help many in this regard.
Another area that has frustrated viewers is the use of the theme of reincarnation. The main cast—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Doona Bae, Xun Zhou, and Susan Sarandon—play multiple characters with heavy make-up[ii]. They change races and genders throughout the movie. D’Arcy plays an Asian for one of his characters, Weaving plays a frightening female nurse, Berry plays a Jewish woman, Bae inexplicably plays a Mexican, and Hanks intentionally plays a hilarious cockney-speaking thug which is out of character as any of the roles in the movie. The effect truly does bring about the connectedness of the characters to one another’s lives. In ways, while some may call the changing-rolls amateurish, and Bae’s Mexican character in particular comes to mind, it is an ingenious way to help the viewer understand that these stories do connect thematically, plot-wise, and in the ways the characters interact with one another. The film is as concise as it is all over the place.
So Cloud Atlas is a long, challenging movie that is about truly sentimental themes of love that half of everyone either already hates or will hate. Why is it worth your trouble?
Firstly, it succeeds in executing its central themes. The film (and novel) is about being put upon by those in power. Adam Ewing’s Abolitionist character (Sturgess) sees slavery as the disease that it is, and Dr. Goose (Hanks) holds him under his thumb by pretending to be his trusted doctor yet is literally poisoning him slowly throughout the movie. Young would-be composer Robert Frobisher (Whishaw) is indentured to his composer master Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) and by his erratic depression and not-really-closeted homosexuality/bisexuality. Investigative journalist Louisa Rey (Berry) is being hunted by the big, powerful oil company for being a threat to reveal their dastardly secrets. Tim Cavendish (Broadbent) is literally trapped in an evil old folk’s home. Sonmi (Bae) is a clone slave to a fast food chain. And finally, good Zachry (Hanks, again) is always in hiding from the evil Kona cannibals in Hawaii (played gloriously by Hugh Grant. Yes, that Hugh Grant). All of these characters face different troubles, but they are all versions of the same thing. We all face versions of the same problem over and over. The movie manages to not be repetitive given its circular themes, which is a success in its own right.
The other big theme, executed wonderfully, is that of our actions affecting others. Compassion. Not only do we face the same problems over and over as humans, but we also cause problems throughout time for ourselves, those around us, and many for centuries to come. There is no Inception-falling-through-four-levels-of-dreams moment here, but rather a recognition that we all make up this world together. This compassion that the film asks for can be seen in the sinews that hold it together. The Wachowskis and Tykwer gave everything they had to this project and its connective tissue. It is guaranteed to fail financially, yet they still mortgaged their houses to get this film made. They meticulously plotted their rapid-fire version of the novel to film an epic that they could be proud of. They wanted to share their message with us. The Wachowskis, who hate press, have done so in hopes that those who have invested in its success will be repaid for their charity. The actors too show compassion in their performances. Tom Hanks and Ben Whishaw stick out in their primary storylines as Zachry and Frobrisher respectively, but it is Jim Broadbent that steals the show with all of his speaking-part characters[iii]. While many people will hate Cloud Atlas, others will love it. The three wonderful filmmakers and their cast made Cloud Atlas for us who love it, to show us why we continue to use film as a medium of expression. We make movies because they show us what is important in our lives.
At the end of Cloud Atlas, Haskell Moore (Weaving) asked Adam Ewing, his son-in-law, why he would become an Abolitionist. He says anything that Ewing could do is merely drops in a limitless ocean.
Cloud Atlas literally asks us, “But isn’t the ocean made up of a multitude of drops?”
[i] Academy award nomination for editing, anyone?
[ii] Academy award nomination for make-up, anyone?
[iii] Again, Academy award nomination for Supporting Actor, anyone? By the way, there is almost no way that this film is nominated for any award other than maybe visual effects. Even that is iffy. I highly doubt the Academy embraces Cloud Atlas’s money-losing production.