A notary who rescues a stowaway slave at sea, but is being slowly poisoned by his greedy doctor. A young musician who must leave his lover to work for an elderly composer. A journalist who stumbles upon a conspiracy that threatens to destroy San Francisco. An aging publisher who finds himself committed to a prison-like nursing home. A clone servant self-actualizing to become a revolutionary. A haunted tribal teaming up with the last of an advanced civilization in a post-apocalyptic future.
Separately, each of the above sentences could fuel an entire movie, but together they are the six narrative threads that comprise Cloud Atlas, the adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel by the Wachowskis and co-director Tom Tykwer where not only is everything connected, but connected in myriad ways.
Like a combination of the theme-based anthology film and those endlessly connected ensemble dramas that were all the rage in the mid-to-late ’00s, elements from one story in Cloud Atlas feed into the other as we go through the film’s chronology, with the aspiring composer reading the diary of the notary, his lover being the figure who sets off the plot of the journalist’s story, and so on. It’s a device that was overused to laughable ends in 2004’s Crash and its post-Oscar imitators, but works in Cloud Atlas because it’s part of the film’s basic thematic thrust.
It’s about endless cosmic connection where stories across time reflect one another and elements are repeated or minor fragments of a story carry on into the next, forming a vast tapestry where most would see separate fabrics and clashing patterns.
While dealing with six apparently disparate eras may seem like a confusing, Quixotic endeavor, Cloud Atlas takes its time introducing each era and its characters in a fairly lengthy scene before cutting to the next. And once all narratives are introduced, the film freely and gleefully jumps from one to another, making the transitions feel natural by drawing clever parallels and employing pseudo match cuts.
It may be too much to handle for some viewers who are used to more standard linear storytelling practices, but for me it’s the same exhilarating effect I got from watching the very first episode of Game of Thrones — just having multiple scenarios, characters and locations being throwing at me, challenging me to keep up. But I grew up reading X-Men comics, motherfucker, I can keep seven plots and 44 characters in my head at the same time. I love that kind of narrative ambition, and I love not being talked down to.
To underscore the effect while helping make sure the human mind understands what’s going on, the film boasts a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Zhou Xun, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Jim Sturgess, and Hugh Grant (among many others), all playing multiple roles across age, gender, and even race. That last one has given the film a bit of negative pre-release buzz, but sitting through the film makes it immediately clear why that decision was made in a movie produced in the 21st century, not to mention that it turns out the racial masquerade in this film goes both ways.
Either way, Cloud Atlas is a work about the intangible things that transcend bodies and never seems to court that cynical practice of choosing star power over racially responsible casting — it’s about making the point of the film as clear as possible*.
Anyway, the Wachowskis have never made an easy movie — each of their projects has been unconventional or groundbreaking in one way or another, even the Matrix sequels which try something different in each installment no matter how much they’re hated, and especially Speed Racer**. Joining them is Tom Tykwer, an underrated filmmaker, possibly because he’s better known for the style and energy he established with Run Lola Run than making movies that capture the hearts and minds of audiences the world over.
But he’s capable of some exhilarating stuff — even The International, which is pretty weak tea, delivered the one time it was given the opportunity.
And, almost as a reflection of the film’s narrative conceit, we have three people playing the role of director, with the Wachowskis and Tykwer splitting directing duties down the middle. While the film is a cohesive thing, you can immediately tell two of the three segments the Wachowskis did — clearly they did the sci-fi ones, but not just because they’re futuristic but because they’re reminiscent of many of their previous works. The same is true of Tykwer’s efforts — he has a tendency for vigorous, audacious filmmaking moments, and the moment we see a slow motion tooth being punched out of somebody’s mouth and flying directly into a pint of beer, we know who’s behind the camera.
Neither parties are typically emotional filmmakers — the Wachowskis often employ a clinical treatment to human relationships, like dealing with pieces in a game of chess, and Tykwer’s filmmaking is more rock ‘n’ roll barnburner than torch song — but together they’ve managed to make a film that pulses with emotion. It’s all very Matrix-y as each of our heroes work against very cruel, very daunting societal matrices, but it’s never about expanding your perception of reality. It’s about feeling your way out of it, following your emotions to overcome that what you’ve been told is the way of the world.
Which sounds a bit New Age, but it’s hardly as Enya in the film. It’s about looking at humanity from a great height and seeing entire stories that feed into other stories unbeknownst to the characters in them; how motifs and ideas repeat and how people’s emotions dictate how they act.
The result is a nearly three-hour film where you never feel the runtime — it’s a work that feels more sprawling and epic and, ultimately, entertaining than any of the season’s big budget Oscar bait, not to mention one that not only spans centuries, but also genres. During Cloud Atlas we get Amistad-like slavery tale, a Total Eclipse-esque period romance, a ’70s paranoia thriller, a fun British institution-damning comedy, a Blade Runner-esque future and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy. It’s like watching six movies at once, which reveals the nature of story — you can express ideas, plots, characters and emotions in infinite ways and combinations and while they may differ superficially, they have a lot in common.
All these words and I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of Cloud Atlas, an awe-inspiring and just plain inspiring film. Even in 2012***, the strongest year of movies we’ve had since probably 2007, Cloud Atlas seems like the film to beat — one where masters of world-building create several story worlds at once, where a trio of visionary filmmakers team up shatter some of our expectations of them while confirming others, and one where so many disparate elements ambitiously unite to create one giant, cohesive epic. Appropriately and most importantly, Cloud Atlas is so much more than the sum of its parts.
*Katey Rich of CinemaBlend has a great piece on why the racism accusations are missing the point that I pretty much agree with. There’s no easy answer the question of having white people appear Asian in this film — other than, as Rich writes, it’s not from a place of hate or meant to be a cartoonish mockery like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, an element that makes an otherwise great film deeply regrettable or, worse yet, the whole of John Wayne’s The Conqueror which is just fucking ridiculous. It’s problematic when looked at from a bunch of different angles, but to get caught up in it ignores and betrays what the film is even about.
***Goddamn, 2012 has been an amazing year of movies.