As the end credits rolled, I found myself completely mesmerised.
There is so much to take in on the first viewing of Cloud Atlas. Your mind has to juggle the multiple stories as they span through the ages, starting from the 1850s to a distant, post apocalyptic future. It’s understandable if people didn’t instantly love this film because of what they have to grasp. It’s not for everyone. At best it requires patience and understanding. Having an open mind can also help if you leave any preconception behind. The stories are loose with some (not all) reaching a wrapped up conclusion which can be frustrating. And yet Cloud Atlas manages to weave these stories into a thought provoking, beautiful and a boldly ambitious sci-fi film.
On the surface it is easy to suggest that Cloud Atlas is about rebirth and reincarnation. Each of the main characters within these complex, multiple storyline bears the mark of a comet, a birthmark that links and connects them through each phase of their lives. The ensemble cast play multiple roles as they change their race, colour and even their gender to achieve their look. Some actors are easily recognisable. Tom Hanks, for example switches from playing a scheming doctor in the 1850s to a Ray Winstone style gangster with a cockney accent in 2012 – I kid you not. Others are well hidden such as Halle Berry and Ben Whishaw. In some scenes they had completely transformed for the time period they were in. Hugo Weaving seemed to have the best fun. Even though he is the villain, he easily switches from a hitman for hire Bill Smoke, Old Georgie, a devil like character that prays on the mind of Zachry (Tom Hanks), to Nurse Noakes, an ode to Nurse Hatchet from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The cast also takes on different accents and dialects where for example in the post apocalyptic world, all the characters speak in broken English. While the changes might be distracting, each actor embraces the challenge and their performance shows.
But the film delves further that that. Cloud Atlas explores the essence of humanity and our evolution. Every decision, struggle, passion, regrets and thoughts are impacted on the lives of others in the past, present and future. No matter how great or small, everything matters or as the film’s tagline suggests, “Everything is connected”. It is the kindness shown from a free black slave and a lawyer that helps them to survive a voyage home. It’s the bravery of a commander that helps a rebellious clone realise her potential in humanity’s future. It’s the will to fight out of a careless nursing home to seek freedom. It is the will to fight for the truth in exposing the guilty parties and potential nuclear destruction. It is the will to be revolutionary and revolt against the “natural order” which is designed to instigate fear and control.
It is the exploration of that connection rather than the film trying to spell out the meaning of it (hence the probable criticism and frustration). In each time period, the characters are drawn to each other one way or another via a loved one or as strangers. It could be through a song (the Cloud Atlas sextet), a gesture, a dream or a simple emotional feeling of courage and a desire to help.
“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” – Sonmi-451
What also strikes me about this film is the use of words as a tool to get that connection across. Words told through stories, through books and through letters that would transcend through the different time periods. Robert Frobisher reads Ewing’s journal about his voyage across the seas. Robert then composes the Cloud Atlas sextet and writes letters to his lover about his experiences working with Vyvyan Arrs. Through Robert’s letters, the lover experiences a chance encounter with a reporter who helps investigate a life or death matter involving a corporation. The ramifications of what took place in the distant future of Neo Seoul, Sonmi-451’s words became the building blocks for humanity’s survival in the post-apocalyptic world, operating like a bible.
No matter how far humanity changes, or how integrated technology has become or how an establishment (or individuals) prey on the weak, the simplistic power of words became the ultimate legacy for our characters. Through their experiences (narrated to the audience) and the choices they made helped shape the future of others, like a domino cause and effect. In one life, they could be a murderer or a slave to the system, in another, a hero. The notion of reincarnation helps convey the story into a main theme that we can easily follow a soul evolving through time. But the film also illustrates that no matter what the fate of civilisation is, it is hope, redemption, belief and love that can help topple any regime or any powerful, unforgiving force. Our stories and experiences (whether good or bad) can live on beyond a life and shared through others. You can’t get anymore sci-fi than that and it’s amazing I got all this from one recent viewing!
The film is nearly three hours long and it flew by. It’s a film no doubt that probably requires multiple viewings to fully grasp everything but that alone shouldn’t stop you. Visually it is stunning, the music soundtrack is haunting and the message is heart-warming.
This is easily the best thing The Wachowskis have done (in collaboration with Tom Tykwer) since The Matrix. This film erases the disappointment I had in the last two Matrix films (Reloaded and Revolutions) and Speed Racer. The film is not without its flaws but they found a source material that plays to their strengths of incorporating technical visual effects with a high concept and epic sci-fi undertone. My mind does find it boggling that this film wasn’t recognised at the Oscars because it deserved a nomination at least (soundtrack, visual effects and make up effects would be my pick). Did the mixed reception during its cinema release influence that decision? Who knows but Cloud Atlas manages to convey deeper meanings that could have been easily ignored in favour of popcorn friendly movies.
I’ve never read the book but the term “unfilmable” has been used to describe it. And yet I was impressed, not only with the concept and the intertwining stories but how visually and beautifully it manages to capture the heart of what it is to be human.
I’ll be adding this film to my blu-ray collection as soon as I get the chance.