It will be easy, and lazy, to dismiss the Wachowski siblings’ and Tom Tykwer’s Cloud Atlas (they directed alternating segments) with some silly wisecracks about how the makeup looks bad in some scenes, or the fact the interlocking narratives each bear some resemblance to existing movies (“It’s like Waterworld meets Silkwood meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Amadeus meets Amistad meets The Matrix” – some guy who hates the Wachowskis). And there are fair criticisms to be had, certainly, but getting into them requires a little establishment first. To be honest, I can’t say I’m certain I know what I feel about the film as a whole, except that I was never bored, constantly eager to discover what would happen next and certain when the lights came up that I had seen quite the ambitious achievement. Is that the same as saying it’s a great film? Can’t say for sure that it is. But it’s certainly one I respect, even as I might have hoped for something yet more profound.
Then again, Cloud Atlas is also a movie that announces its grand intentions early on, with large-scale location shots and time-jumping that encompasses six different periods – the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s, Belgium in the ’30s, California in the ’70s, England in the present day, Korea in the next century, and what may be Hawaii in a post-apocalypse time. Most of the same actors reappear in each period, among them Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, James D’arcy, Doona Bae (of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and The Host), Keith David, and Susan Sarandon. They don’t always play the same race, or even gender – it may seem facile to connect this to co-director Lana Wachowski’s sex change, except that at the screening I attended – with the directors in attendance – when the gender-blind casting was mentioned, she very blatantly did a comedic mock double-take, so I do assume the notion of soul not being tied to sex was a key factor.
And the same actors are not necessarily playing reincarnations of each other: Hanks as Hanks throughout, etc. The main protagonist of each tale, rather, is implied to be the same soul via a shooting star-shaped birthmark, meaning that, for example, 1850s Sturgess IS 1930s Whishaw, ’70s Berry, 2012 Broadbent, future Bae, and far-future Hanks. Souls here are not bound to similar looking bodies as they reincarnate (a possible exception being Hugo Weaving, who’s a lackey of evil every time he appears), but are doomed to eternally be surrounded by the same basic types and occasionally become them. It’s simpler than it sounds, because the whole reincarnation thing really doesn’t get much deeper than “Hey, check it out: reincarnation!” The book’s implication that each narrative is only a fiction being consumed as entertainment in each subsequent time is more subtle here, and confusing at times; rather than make us wonder who dreams who, a la the Red King in Alice Through the Looking Glass, we just wonder why something that obviously happened is being treated at times as if it did not. The link that initially makes it clear all this did happen is the recurrence of Sixsmith (D’arcy), who links the ’30s tale to the ’70s follow-up; the post-apocalypse era later establishes beyond a doubt that “future-Korea” was equally real.
Each period is also, for the most part, a separate genre, beginning with the social-justice historical drama of Sturgess’ Adam Ewing realizing the injustices of slavery. ’30s Belgium is a love story, both romantic and chaste, as secretly bisexual musician Frobisher (Wishaw) runs away to escape implicating lover Sixsmith and becomes apprentice/collaborator to great composer Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent), whose wife he secretly bangs on the side. Fittingly in cinematic terms, the ’70s period is a thriller, with Sixsmith now an aged nuclear scientist leaking secret materials to plucky reporter Luisa Rey (Berry). Present-day is a comedy, not just because of Hanks’ ridiculous attempt at a Cockney accent, but mostly because of Broadbent’s hilarious bluster as he finds himself unwittingly committed to a nursing home and tries to break out. Future Korea feels like very familiar Wachowski territory, as it is sci-fi action (yes, they know kung-fu) involving depersonalization and the use of human bodies as an energy source. Finally, we get the sci-fi of ideas, a kind of would-be Rod Serling tone for post-nuke humanity. In a sense, then, Cloud Atlas isn’t just commenting on life, but perhaps even more so on cinema itself as a whole, much as Holy Motors did by having its central player embody multiple roles in different genres of real life.
The makeup is utterly, brilliantly amazing in some scenes – I had no idea that was Halle Berry as a blonde German Jew – and distracting in others (are the Caucasian actors in future Korea supposed to look Asian, or like some future weird mutation of humankind in general?), occasionally comedic where applicable (Weaving as a woman is way uglier here than in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Hugh Grant looks super-scary as a cannibalistic Orc of the End Times, while Doona Bae simply cannot and does not look like a white Southern belle. I don’t know quite why Weaving shows up as a green-faced Alice Cooper-like devil hallucinated by post-apocalypse Hanks, but suspect that in keeping with the “totality of cinema” theme, it may be a tribute to Georges Melies’ disappearing Imp. I’m similarly not in a frame of mind to sum up all the key scenes of characters falling from great heights and explaining how they’re all alike or different – that would take multiple viewings, so suffice it to say it’s a noticeable motif, and probably something something something Paradise Lost.
Per Wikipedia, a cloud atlas is “a pictorial key to the nomenclature of clouds.” Put simply, that just means pictures of different clouds with names put to them. But when it comes down to it, they’re all just water vapor, no matter what form that may take at a given moment depending on outside factors. There are a number of different ways you could apply that metaphor to the movie; the most obvious in my mind being that storytelling – specifically of the cinematic kind – is the vapor, never created or destroyed as the laws of conservation of matter state, but merely converted (or reincarnated) from one form to another. If the various shapes herein don’t meet your preferred standard – maybe you’re more into sunny days – just keep watching the skies. Because while particles may last forever, no particular organization of them does. And that’s most definitely an underlying theme.